Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Hope Beyond Cure

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We will all, one day, die. That realisation can be a terrifying thought, and one that we are remarkably good at pushing to the back of our minds, but we all have to face it at some point.

Nothing sets you face to face with your own mortality quite as squarely as stage-4 lung cancer. In Hope Beyond Cure, David McDonald tells the story of his own cancer diagnosis. After twenty years of pastoring Crossroads Christian Church in Canberra (my own home church, when I’m in that part of the world), he and his family were getting ready to move and get involved in ministry all the way over in Darwin when cancer arrived and completely demolished their plans. Within a couple of weeks, he went from having big hopes for future ministry to looking at probable death within about a year. This little book is about the hope Dave has — real and powerful hope — even in the midst of his cancer.

Dave notes that there are many things that can give us hope during our life. We can have hope in medicines, in a healthy lifestyle and in loving relationships with others. He reminds us that these are all good things, but, ultimately, they don’t bring lasting hope — all of these things will come to an end with death. Instead, Dave’s primary purpose is to point to a deeper hope, a hope beyond death. He warns us against getting so caught up in the very good hopes that we have in medicine and lifestyle and all the rest that we forget about the very best hope we have — the only hope that will last. I think nearly all of us, in our quest to ignore the reality of death, do this only too often.

So what is this “best hope”, this hope beyond death? Dave explains that it is based on the gospel of Jesus Christ and “the reality that Jesus Christ was crucified, buried in a tomb, and then resurrected from the dead”. He clearly explains that our deepest problem is “not cancer — it’s sin”. It is as a result of our sin that God has allowed pain and suffering to come into the world, but he still loves us and sent Jesus to suffer our punishment in our place. “We can find hope in the face of our own deaths by placing our faith in Jesus’s death. Without Jesus we’re headed for death and judgement, but with Jesus we can look forward to a hope-filled future in relationship with God.”

Dave is careful to show his audience that this hope based on faith in the gospel of Jesus is not misplaced; it is not a crutch invented to soften the difficult reality of death. He honestly tells us how, when faced with his own death, he began to question whether the message he had believed was real. He had to be completely sure. In the book, he shares with us some of the things that have convinced him that his faith is absolutely based on the truth, including the persuasive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a really important part of the book, because it shows us that this “hope” is not about making dying people feel good — it’s a genuine, substantial hope that’s based on verifiable truth.

Not only does Dave remind us of the wonderful hope we have in Jesus, he shows us how this hope should influence our life. “…faith and hope set us free to love. We know longer need to worry about our own needs, because God has them covered. And so faith and hope set us free to live — right here and now, even in the midst of pain and suffering — in love”. He reminds us how Jesus suffered terrible things, and how God worked through that terrible suffering to bring us hope. “In a similar way, God is able to bring about great good through our pain and suffering.” Dave relates how God has used his own suffering with lung cancer for great purposes, including in helping him to show love in various ways to others affected by cancer. This was quite inspiring and challenging, I found, because it shows how our hope is not just a passive thing, an insurance, rather it’s something that should motivate us to reach outwards and bring hope and love to others.

Hope Beyond Cure is only a short book, but it’s very encouraging and also potentially quite confronting. It’s a great book to read and to give to anyone: Christian or non-Christian; healthy or sick; young or old. We will all die one day, and we all need to be reminded about the hope that exists beyond cure because of what Jesus has done. It’s especially powerful because it is written by someone who has experienced cancer himself, and been faced with death. It doesn’t feel trite or superficial or misguided: it’s honest and real, as written by someone who has grappled with the big questions that we all have to grapple with some time (but that most of us are putting off).

I will also add that this book has been especially encouraging for me because I know Dave’s family personally, especially his two younger children. I’ve been very encouraged by them and their faith, which was clearly strong even when their Dad was diagnosed. It makes the book all the more powerful, because you can see how their hope actually impacts their lives.

If you want to get a copy of this book, I believe you can order it from http://www.matthiasmedia.com in the US or http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au in the rest of the world. You can also read more stuff from Dave at his blog, macarisms.com.

Teens Can Write, Too September blog-chain: Let’s Begin

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Hey everyone. Do you know what day it is today? I just looked at the calendar… and it’s the 26th of September. Which means I’m scheduled to post in the TCWT blog-chain! Usually, by this time, I have my post ready-written and perfectly pedicured, manicured, with eyebrows plucked and all the wax out scraped out of the ears and burning brightly as candles. But today, unfortunately, due to my swottish and procrastinatory tendencies important exams coming up, the day has somehow arrived without me having written post. So bear with me as I try to come up with something quick.

This month’s prompt is terrific: “What are your favourite book beginnings and/or endings?” This is a really interesting topic to consider, because beginnings and endings are a crucially important part of any story. Stuff this up, and chances are you’ve stuffed up the whole thing. On the other hand, get it right and you’ve gone a long way towards writing someone’s favourite book. So let’s go through and look first at some of my favourite beginnings, then some endings, and then at a couple of stories that did really well with both.

1. Beginnings.

Thinking of favourite beginnings was much harder than I thought. I could think of heaps that were really good, but no absolute stand-outs. Nevertheless, I’ll give you a couple of my best picks, and try to pin-point at least part of why I liked them so much.

Of the books I’ve read recently, the one with the best beginning was probably Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Initially, what’s interesting about this novel is the narrator, Lockwood. A boring name for a boring guy, but even boring people can be interesting when a good writer tells the story from their point of view. In the first chapter, this city-bloke turns up on the bleak Yorkshire moors in a jolly good mood and imposes himself on the local populace (all the while claiming that he is an “exaggeratedly reserved” fellow). There, he immediately starts coming to wrong conclusions about everything. First, he decides that his landlord, Heathcliff, is a “capital fellow” when it’s obvious he’s anything but — and then he blunders around guessing who the young lady of the house might be married to (“Heathcliff, you’re wife? No?” “Your son’s wife then? No again?” “He’s not your son? Really?” “I’m asking too many questions?”)*. This works to get a bit of humour and conflict in the story early on, but the hinkiness of the narrator also establishes a certain air of mystery and uncertainty that really gets you hooked into the story. That air of mystery is cranked up to maximum when Lockwood is forced to spend the night at the Heights and has a series of bizarre dreams in which he is visited by ghosts. Clearly this place is haunted, not merely with ghosts, but with memories. And so the beginning draws us into the story, causing us, like Lockwood, to want to discover what these memories are.

Another beginning I loved was the beginning to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (by some famous author). There, rather than beginning with the main characters of the novel, we begin at the Riddle House (through a dream of Harry’s), where we learn about mysterious and evil goings-on that we know will impact on the events of the story. This heightens the sense of dread right from the start (all the more so because this is the 4th book in the series, and thus we understand many of the implications of the dream). After this dream, we cut to Harry, and the more mundane activities he is involved with, but we have that sense of fear and anticipation linked with the dream that draws us quickly through even the slower parts of the novel (which, admittedly, are virtually non-existent). In both Wuthering Heights and The Goblet of Fire, it’s that element of mystery from the beginning that is instrumental in drawing us into the story, and in creating a sense of tension and dread throughout the book.

2. Endings

Favourite endings were every bit as hard as favourite beginnings, but again I’ve picked a couple of excellent ones.

The first I’d mention is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This was a wonderful book. Ultimately, it’s the story of a girl (Salamanca) trying to come to terms with her mother’s leaving, but this is bound up between the interweaving stories of Salamanca travelling across the United States with her grandparents, and the story she narrates to her grandparents as they drive — the story of her friend Phoebe, who’s own mother also left, but then came back. This story is a masterpiece of pacing: it unfolds slowly and beautifully, yet without dragging it’s feet, and the different sections of the story — past and present — reflect on each other while at the same time leaving many details obscured. And then, at the end, the last piece is placed in the centre of the jigsaw puzzle, and it all makes sense. Salamanca knew everything, she just didn’t tell us. (At this point you do feel slightly miffed as a reader, because she tells it to some random police officer after going through the whole book without tellingus.)

The second book I’d mention is The Lord of the Rings (by another famous bloke). This is, quite possibly, my favourite novel of all time, so it’s no surprise that it contains one of my favourite endings. I won’t say much about it, but I loved how the ending was expected, yet unexpected; completely foreshadowed, and yet a complete surprise. And how it so wonderfully proved the wisdom of Gandalf, because Gandalf is awesome.

3. Multis

I’ve given you a couple of my favourite beginnings and endings, now for a couple of stories that had great beginnings AND endings.

First — to move away from books, for a moment — let’s discuss one of my favourite films: Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. This film starts off horrifically. A man drowns in (what looks like) a big fish-tank, and another man, who is caught standing outside the tank, is sentenced for his murder. It’s a dark and creepy opening scene that immediately draws us into the dark and creepy story. From here, we dive into the past to work out how we got there, watching as a tale unfolds of the increasingly bitter rivalry between two 19th century stage magicians. The story has so many twists and turns, flash-backs and flash-forwards, that one quickly forgets which way is up, but it comes together in a remarkable conclusion that turns the film upside down (if you knew which way that was), and makes you realise that the beginning was even more horrific than you thought. It’s one of those films where it clicks at the end and everything suddenly makes sense. Indeed, this film was even better because there were two clicks at the end — as my friend put it: “they blow your mind, then they blow it again five minutes later”. The beginning and the end work together perfectly to create a fantastic, unified story that turns itself on its head.

And now, the final story I’ll talk about: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. I’ve chosen this book precisely because it has a very different kind of beginning and ending to The Prestige, and most of the others I’ve listed.Okay for Now doesn’t score by virtue of its fantastically mysterious opening, nor due to an ending that makes everything fall into place. Rather, what I love about this is how Schmidt achieves a fantastic unity of voice that is present from the first page to the last. It’s a simple, poetic, sympathetic voice that makes us love the narrator, Doug Swieteck as much as we loved Holling Hoodhood in the prequel (The Wednesday Wars) — maybe even more. Here’s how the story starts:

Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.

I’m not lying.

He gave it to me. To me, Doug Swieteck. To me.

Schmidt uses words tastefully and economically to very quickly build up a picture of who Doug is. “I’m not lying” is a refrain throughout the book, highlighting Doug’s struggle — growing up in a family of liars, with not being believed even when he tells the truth — while his fixation on Pepitone’s giving it “to me” highlights how unimportant he is to almost everyone.

By the end of this story many things have changed. Doug has transformed from a jerk to a really sympathetic character. He’s made many friends, and he’s gone from feeling almost totally unimportant to being very important to many people. And yet, he’s still the same guy, and he still speaks with the same voice. Here’s how the story ends:

And I’m not lying, I heard, all around us, over the sounds of the huge machines in the room, over the sounds of Apollo 11 heading to the moon, I heard, all around us, the beating of strong wings.

We’ve still got the same voice, and yet now there’s a sense of security and hope, even in the face of obstacles and even perhaps death. Now it’s “us” not “me”.

What did you think of those beginnings and endings? I think it’s clear from my selection there, that there isn’t really any formula for writing a great beginning or a great ending. Some great beginnings start by plunging you into a mystery, others just draw you in through a really interesting narrative voice. Some endings make you see the story in a whole different light, others wrap up delicately and touchingly. There’s no “right” way to do it, really. And isn’t that what makes it so much fun?

(P.S sorry I’m late — I couldn’t quite finish the blog-post yesterday, so now it’s early on the 27th and I’m a day late. Follow the blog-chain for some more thought-out and punctual posts.)

 

September 2014 blog chain prompt/schedule:

Prompt: “What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?” 

7th – http://vergeofexisting.wordpress.com/

8th – http://zarahoffman.com/

9th – http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

10th – http://www.elizamcfarlish.weebly.com/

11th – http://sammitalk.wordpress.com/

12th – http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/

13th – http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

14th – http://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

15th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/

16th – http://magicandwriting.wordpress.com/

17th – http://ttkesley.wordpress.com/

18th – http://www.brookeharrison.com/

19th – http://www.freeasagirlwithwings.wordpress.com/

20th – http://roomble.wordpress.com/

21st – http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

22nd – http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

23rd – http://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

24th – http://lillianmwoodall.wordpress.com/

and http://www.paperdaydreams.com/

25th – http://write-where-you-are.blogspot.de/

and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/

26th – http://insideliamsbrain.wordpress.com/

and https://anmksmeanderingmind.wordpress.com/

27th – http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/

and http://dynamicramblings.wordpress.com/

28th – http://oliviarivers.wordpress.com/

and http://randommorbidinsanity.blogspot.com/

29th – http://theloonyteenwriter.wordpress.com/

30th – http://thelonglifeofalifelongfangirl.wordpress.com/

and http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)

  • Disclaimer: these are not direct quotes from the novel.

 

Book Review: Mockingjay *Spoilers!*

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was the very first book I paid to get on my Kindle. Its ardent fans swarmed the YWP NaNo WriMo website in such great numbers that I was willing to put down $5 for it without even bothering to get the free sample. And it was worth it. But at the end of the book, the story was clearly not over: Katniss may have survived the arena — and Peeta too — but she had got on the wrong side of the president of Panem himself. And, possibly of greater importance, she still had one too many suitors. So I willingly forked out $15 for the next two books: Catching Fire, the first rumblings of rebellion, and then Mockingjay, the final struggle between Katniss and the Capitol.

Having read Catching Fire, I am glad I read Mockingjay (though it may have been best to stop after The Hunger Games). It was a legitimate ending to the series. Collins’ style was much the same as in the first two books; the same first person present tense, the same dark intensity, the same dramatic chapter endings. The storyline was different — there was no Hunger Games — but we’ve been waiting for a showdown between the Districts and the Capitol ever since the end of the first book. Was the showdown good? In some ways it was; in many ways it wasn’t. Let’s look at it.

When Katniss became the Mockingjay and they started filming her first inspirational message, I didn’t like it one bit. The whole thing was so fake and scripted. It might have looked okay on television in the Districts, but it was clear I would hate a book-full of painfully fake telecast recordings. However I think Collins expected a response something like this, and indeed played for it. She used Katniss’s ineptness as a TV star as an excuse to send her to dangerous zones, despite the fact District 13 would be protective of someone they spent so much on rescuing. Katniss’s courageous acts in war zones (like shooting down Capitol aeroplanes) were far more inspirational than her telecasts, and there was more scope for suspense and danger there too. Even so, they were still a long way from her inspirational best — which we haven’t really seen since The Hunger Games.

One of the biggest shocks in the entire trilogy-ful of shocks was when Peeta turned against Katniss. District 13 rescued Peeta from the Capitol, and when Katniss went to visit him, he throttled her. From about three quarters of the way through The Hunger Games and then all the way through Catching Fire, Collins has built Peeta’s love for Katniss into a universal constant. So she could hardly have created a greater effect had she reversed the law of gravity (and this isn’t Phil Phorce).

In terms of plot, I think this was a good move by Collins: it provides a necessary and unexpected twist in their relationship. Does it seem wrong though to make Peeta’s steadfastness so easily vanquishable? At first I thought so, but in the end he managed to mostly overcome the effects: his love was that strong. As they journeyed through the Capitol, Peeta frequently argued for his own death — or if they would not kill him, at the very least tie him up — to keep him from killing anyone. So I don’t think this showed Peeta to be weak: if anything it highlights the strength of his character that he would rather die than endanger those he loves.

In The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Katniss was in the clutches of the hostile Capitol, so there was great scope for danger. In Mockingjay, however, she is under the protection of District 13. Thankfully, about two thirds of the way through, she is assigned to a sharp-shooter squad and things start to go wrong.

Firstly, Peeta was added to the squad. Since Peeta’s mind still partly thought that Katniss was a muttation, this put her life in danger.

Then Boggs, the squadron leader and one of the few people Katniss got along with, stepped on a mine and died within minutes. Strangely, in a way this was a good thing for Katniss. Katniss had been wanting to steal the holo (the 3-D map of the pods) from Boggs and make off to assassinate President Snow. But since she was indebted to Boggs, it would have been a major twinge  of conscience to do so. With Boggs’s dying breath, he transferred control of the holo from himself to Katniss.

Once Katniss had control of the holo, she revealed her plan to assassinate Snow, claiming that it was a secret mission. Everybody came along with her and they travelled underground across the Capitol. Strewn across it, just like above ground, were pods, and before long the Capitol sent muttations after them.

Most of their party perishes in that journey, including Finnick. Finnick’s death was for me the most tragic death of all up to that point. Not because I necessarily liked him better than the other characters (though he was likeable enough), but because he had just married Annie, the slightly deranged girl he loved so much. What would poor Annie do now that Finnick was dead, go totally insane? The marriage was a rare happy point during the book. But what does Collins do when she creates something happy, something good? She destroys it. Characters are only built up so that they make more of an impact when they are taken away.

When the remnants of the squad reached the heart of the Capitol, Katniss and Gale go to kill Snow. Gale was taken by peacekeepers on the way, and Katniss arrived at Snow’s mansion alone. She arrived just in time to see Prim killed by a bomb.

For me this is narrowly eclipsed Finnick’s death as the climax of tragedy in the series. If there was any lingering doubt that the series was a tragedy story, it is vanquished with this grand final stroke. The irony; the irony. Prim was not a terribly major character — to be honest, I think she was underdone —  but she was the one who got the whole thing rolling; it was for her that Katniss entered that first Hunger Games. The first courageous thing Katniss did in the series, perhaps the most courageous thing Katniss did in the series, was to volunteer to enter the Hunger Games in order to protect Prim from death. And now, at the end of the series, Katniss fails. Prim dies.

This may have been the climax of tragedy, but it was not the final tragic blow. The next thing that I found terrible, that destroyed any respect that I had for Katniss (and I had plenty in the first book, but it  eroded as the series has progressed) happened on the day of Snow’s execution. Coin suggested a final Hunger Games, a Hunger Games of Capitol children, to punish their parents for their oppression of the districts. She asked the surviving Hunger Games victors to vote on it. Peeta, Beetee and Annie voted no. I expected them to. Johanna and Enobaria voted yes. It lowered my opinion of them, but I was not surprised. Then Katniss voted yes. Her terrible ordeals, it would seem, had eroded all her morals and compassion. Perfectly natural under the circumstances, perhaps, but the heroine ought not be in a moral abyss at this point. Heroines are not there to do what is “perfectly natural under the circumstances”; they’re there to resist evil and make us love them for it.

Immediately afterward, Katniss killed Coin. All through the story she had been aching to kill Snow; all through the story, though they didn’t lay eyes on each other, Katniss and Snow had been engaged in a very real struggle. Then, at the end of the book when she finally has her glorious chance to kill him, she fired at Coin instead. I must say I quite liked this twist on the story goal. Even though a lot of the bad-painting of Coin was tell rather than show, it was clear (especially after the Hunger Games incident) that she wasn’t a great person. And Katniss was already in a moral abyss, so having her kill Coin in cold blood hardly made any difference.

Once Coin was dead, and Snow too by suffocation of his own blood, the only thing that remained was the resolution of the love triangle.

The new government sent Katniss to District 12 where she lived in the Victor’s Village. Peeta and Haymitch are sent there too. For a while nothing happens: Katniss just lolled around feeling depressed — and let me tell you, I was depressed at that point in the novel too. But eventually she came to realise that she loved Peeta. She didn’t need Gale’s fire, rage and destruction; she need Peeta’s hope and “promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses”. She chose Peeta.

I respect her decision — and her reasons — but I expected something more profound. There seemed to be a lack of conviction about her decision. Also, I expected that her choice would be set up — the clues would be there — and when Collins revealed the answer it would all make sense. In a way it was like that: I began to dislike Gale in the final book because of his desire for vengeance and his disregard for life. But Gale and Katniss had been so similar, they knew each other so well, they fitted together. And Gale had not only loved Katniss, he had looked out for her family too. So I felt that this conclusion was a bit under thought out, even though the last page was eloquent and relieved some of the depression of the last few chapters.

The style of this book was in keeping with the other two, and I enjoyed most of it. The suspense and action were high. Much of it was very well done. But on the whole I felt that Mockingjay was a disappointment, an underwhelming finish to the trilogy. I thought the end was too tragic, and I was very disappointed by Katniss’s vote for a 76th Hunger Games. Also, the resolution of the love triangle could have been done better. Thus for the rating: 3/5. Please tell me what you thought of the book too!

A Few Quick Words on The Lightning Thief

For a little while now, I have been wanting to read the Percy Jackson series and see if it is what it’s made out to be. Now that I’ve read The Lightning Thief, I should probably say a word about what I thought of it. I don’t feel like writing a full-blown review at the moment, but a few thoughts mightn’t go astray.

In some respects, the book actually reminded me of Harry Potter. Percy, like Harry, is not normal: one is a demigod, the other a wizard — but both spent their early years thinking they were normal and wondering why supernatural things always happened to them accidentally. Both were bullied in the normal world and were never really happy there. Both of them, while brave and kind-hearted, have a slight rebellious flair. Both of them are good fighters and seem to have good luck.

The book has other similarities to Harry Potter. There is another trio of friends: Harry, Ron and Hermione is replaced with Percy, Annabeth and Grover. The world of the gods is very much a modern world of the gods — it mirrors today’s society — in very much the same way as the wizarding world of Harry Potter. A major difference is that Harry Potter stays at Hogwarts (like Camp Half-Blood?) while Percy treks across America. The climax is also different to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in make up, but there are characters which remind me, in some ways, of Snape, Quirrel, and Voldemort. And then, of course, there is the ubiquitous element of the villain telling the protagonist all his secrets before he kills him…

I don’t know think I liked The Lightning Thief quite as much as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone though. The world of the Greek gods, while still brilliantly put together, doesn’t captivate me as much as the wizarding world, with Quidditch, interesting school subjects, and a Ministry for Magic. I think it is a very good idea, and reasonably well executed, but perhaps not as tremendous idea and as tremendously well executed as Harry Potter. There are a few little things that put me off very slightly as well. For example Percy’s mother works at a sweetshop: I am not a big fan of most candy (with the exception of chocolate) so to me doesn’t really seem to fit her personality (I mean such a lovely lady always comes home with a bag of sticky, tooth-rotting stuff for Percy?). Now if she worked in a bakery and came home with all manner of lovely baked goods, that would be different…

So, I liked The Lightning Thief; I liked the way humorous way Rick Riordan deals with Greek gods in modern times; I liked the exciting adventure — but it’s not quite my new favourite book. I’m definitely glad I read it though, and hopefully I’ll get to read a few more in the series in the next couple of months. It probably wasn’t helpful to compare it so much to Harry Potter because they are different series by different authors, but there were a few elements I thought I’d compare and as I wrote I kept thinking of more.

Spoilers

We all hate spoilers. They are my pet peeve. Once I was at a dinner and an eight year old kid was trying to tell me about major events in Harry Potters 6 and 7 (I was reading 6 at the time). I try not to be rude, but I ended up muttering songs with my fingers in my ears until my sister could get him to be quiet (I feel sorry for her though — she’s only read the first 3, and now she probably knows the whole series).

Well the point is, I will be writing reviews on this blog, and reviews often contain minor spoilers. If you’re not sure if you want to read a post for fear of spoilers — don’t. Or you could comment on the post without actually reading it, to ask whether or not you should. Generally I will keep major spoilers out, but my reviews contain more spoilers than I would want to read myself. I’m the kind of guy who often doesn’t read the back of a book in case it gives away something (I know, it’s a bad habit… and I’m slowly changing), but I don’t expect that everyone else is like this. (otherwise why would they have stuff on the back of the book?) Which is why I write reviews.

And I realise I have been a bit quiet for the past week or so. I’ve been busy. A review should appear tomorrow.

Book Review: Kon-Tiki

I don’t know about you, but for the last couple of weeks I have been eagerly following the Teens Can Write, Too blog chain about the importance of book covers. Some posts in the chain were terrific; others slightly less so. In general, however, they have made me fairly proud to be a teenager – and they have also caused me to consider the all-important role of book covers. I don’t think much about book covers, so without being prompted otherwise I probably would have said that I hold to the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover”. But that would not be true: I often may not realise it, but the fact that I was not jumping up and down to read Kon-Tiki (not that I’m very excitable at the best of times…) attests to the fact that covers do influence me. The title certainly didn’t help: I had no clue what (or who) a Kon-Tiki was. But even besides the title, the physique of the copy wasn’t endearing: it was a fairly cheap-looking book, and while the cover art was passable, it wasn’t fantastic. In the centre of the book, in sharp contrast to the other beige coloured pages, was a section of stark-white, cheap-looking photo-copy paper (it contained photos, reviews, and notes). To top it all off, under the title and the author’s name (Thor Heyerdahl) – which were, incidentally, in a boring font – was “Complete and Unabridged” and “Includes detailed explanatory notes, an overview of key themes, and more”. Not that I like abridged books – or dislike explanatory notes – but often books with such advertisements are difficult, boring classics (admittedly I have enjoyed plenty of classics – like Oliver Twist and especially Pride and Prejudice).

But I changed my mind about Kon-Tiki, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this review (people say it’s fun to write bad reviews, but I’ve never tried it). In fact, I was hooked by the foreword. This is kind of strange, because the foreword was about Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that Polynesians came from South America, not from South-East Asia or any other of the numerous countries that have been suggested as their origin. This might make me sound nerdy (not that I’d be insulted), but it’s true. Even though I know very little about Polynesians, much less their origin, the fact that strongly held beliefs about them were being proven wrong by a solitary young Norwegian was compelling. Thor Heyerdahl had so much interesting evidence from so many areas to back up his claim, but nobody would even read his manuscript. The fact that he took evidence from lots of areas, in fact, was part of the problem: scientists were very specialised and they did not meddle in the fields of other scientists. In the words of the author “…to solve the problems of the Pacific without throwing light on them from all sides was, it seemed to me, like doing a puzzle and only using the pieces of one colo[u]r.” But that’s exactly what everyone else tried to do.

I got so caught up in Heyerdahl’s theory, to tell the truth, that I was almost disappointed when he finished with the background and started to get into the story. This was foolishness of course: to read 230 pages of theory, even a theory like Heyerdahl’s, would have to be pretty boring. And the story turned out to be quite an adventure! A major objection that people voiced in response to Heyerdahl’s theory (or what little of his theory they suffered to hear) was how the Polynesians got there. Heyerdahl claimed that they sailed on balsa-wood rafts: everybody laughed at this, but he determined to prove it. A Norwegian visiting America, with very little money, no influence, and no one to read his theory, he decided that he would build a raft and sail across the Pacific himself. He found partners and companions for his journey; he found sponsors; he was assisted by ambassadors and diplomats; he was given provisions and accessories by the army; he was helped vastly by Peruvians to build his raft… all in all he was a very bold and fortunate guy. And then he and his five companions were on their way across the mighty Pacific in a balsa-wood raft – which all the world predicted would sink.

At this point, I determined, the story had the potential to become either very dull or very exciting – and of course by rights Heyerdahl would soon be very dead (but of course he couldn’t die, he was the author). It turned out, that in the short term at least, the raft was doing quite well: so the story should, at that point, have become very boring. But although I am sure it was better to experience it than to read about it, there was something fantastic about reading the true story of 20th century men sailing on a prehistoric raft under the stars.

I confess that I often think of the Pacific Ocean as a body of water (shock! horror!). But I soon realised that it is much more than that – it is a rich ecosystem: you could call it a marine rain-forest. I once read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I remember getting quite bored as I read the long lists of creatures that they observed from the Nautilus. The lists of species observed from the Kon-Tiki are similar (the Kon-Tiki was the name of their raft, named after the legendary Tiki who first sailed for Polynesia), but I found them much more entertaining. Perhaps because they were real fantastic creatures encountered by real people – not merely the figments of Jules Verne’s imagination.

So in general, while the publishers really should have come up with a better cover for it,  Kon-Tiki was quite a good book (but perhaps it isn’t “proper” for “classics” to have interesting covers). It is true that it wasn’t the sort of book I could read all in a day: some books I can just read and read, with others I need to be more temperate; but that isn’t a great indicator of quality (I love The Lord of the Rings but I can’t read heaps of it at once; I’m not a huge fan of Enid Blyton, but when I was younger I read her books in big chunks). I would probably rate Kon-Tiki 4/5, but out of 10, probably 7. So if you like anthropology, you should read this book. If you like maritime adventures, you should read this book. If you like anthropology, and you like maritime adventures: score!