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30 November
2011
The Critical Eye Viewpoints
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Your Favorite Books of 2011

Here’s a smattering of books that our reviewers felt were among the best they read in 2011. We’d like to hear what YOUR favorite reads were this year.

The Big Juice: Epic Tales of Big Wave Surfing

By John Long and Sam George, editors
Falcon Guides, $18.95, 301 pages

Surfing is a combination of balance, strength, nerve, intuition, and hard-won knowledge of the sea. A sport to some, a religion to others, there is nothing quite like it on Earth. And for surf enthusiasts who need more adrenaline and challenge, the final frontier is big wave surfing. Whether paddling in or being towed, the potential of conquering a wave stories tall is where it’s at.

The Big Juice chronicles the highs and lows of big wave surfing, as told by the men and women who have come to define the sport. From wipeouts so brutal they’re life-threatening, to the discovery of secret surf spots a hundred miles offshore, from waves that have swallowed entire neighborhoods, to the friends and heroes lost to the unforgiving ocean, the stories in The Big Juice are exhilarating, heartrending, and fascinating.

Punctuated by absolutely stunning photography of these monstrous waves — and the intrepid souls who embrace the challenge of taming them — this is a glimpse into a totally alien world, and the incredible force nature brings to bear. It’s a celebration, a warning, a tribute, a memorial, and a historical document all at once.

Reviewed by Glenn Dallas

 

Men with Broken Faces

By James Ostby
Dog Ear Publishing, $14.99, 251 pages

In this engrossing novel, we meet Morgan Feeney, an epileptic, drunken, and out-of-work shepherd. He suddenly finds himself enlisting in the United States Army during World War I, and for the first time in his life, Morgan discovers his strength as a leader of men. Morgan’s camaraderie with his fellow soldiers gives him a sense of belonging, while also filling him with dread that he must risk losing them.  After witnessing the horrific deaths of his friends, Morgan’s epilepsy is now compounded by shell shock, which haunts him for years after surviving the war.

Morgan thinks, “If I could be a man in war, I can be a man always.” Unfortunately, he finds himself labeled a lunatic, rather than a hero. Only one person understands him, Genevieve, a nurse who also served in World War I.

Men with Broken Faces, with its gripping scenes of warfare and philosophical insight, is an excellently crafted novel. The reader finds in Morgan a sympathetic character, and we follow his transformation from a ne’er-do-well, to hero, to town crazy, and to hero again. Ostby’s visceral scenes and compassionate insight into Morgan’s mind reveal in Ostby not only a great writer but a humanitarian.

Reviewed by Kerry Lindgren

 

Scorpia Rising: An Alex Rider Misson (An Alex Rider Novel)

By Anthony Horowitz
Philomel, $17.99, 400 pages

In this final and epic conclusion to the Alex Rider series that has been eleven years coming, Scorpia Rising announces its debut. To those who approach the Alex Rider series for the very first time, they are young adult novels known for their breakthrough in spy literature. The combination of swerving plots and a wealthy, rather encyclopedic knowledge of espionage have kept readers on their toes for more than a decade. To those who have followed Rider through thick and thin (mostly thick), will know the worth and weight of this book. I am one of the latter, a follower of Alex since the very beginning, and I was partially dreading and greatly coveting Scorpia Rising.

In the waters of Venice, a founder of Scorpia is found dead with an encrypted phone, $350, and a severed spinal cord. Retrieved by MI6, the phone is interpreted to be a plot to corrupt the Cairo International College of Arts and Education. Alan Blunt, who has the creeping suspicion that he might be forced to “retire,” makes the move to incorporate Alex Rider into his plan for investigation. This is immediately shot down by several authorities, but is realized as a solution when a shooting, whose target is Alex, happens at his local high school. The book follows Alex into the desert lands of Cairo where, like a ticking time bomb, an old enemy, and a terrifying new one, await. More is at stake than Alex could possibly imagine as he unknowingly steps into his own trap.

So, does Scorpia Rising live up to its predecessors? A plot that must constantly ride along with a new generation of readers and with expectations that grow each day are hard not to be worn thin. And yet, Horowitz does the impossible. He constantly delivers and this book is no exception. It will be hard to say goodbye.

Reviewed by Alexandra Masri

 

Heads You Lose

By Lisa Lutz, David Hayward
Putnam, $24.95, 320 pages

Author Lisa Lutz can always be counted on to deliver a highly entertaining, laugh-out-loud tale, chock full of zany characters and unusual scenarios. I have to admit I was a little concerned to find a name penned under hers (albeit in much smaller font) on the front cover of her latest offering Heads You Lose. Further digging revealed a collaboration between Lutz and her ex-beau, prize-winning poet David Hayward.

But don’t think for an instant this is your typical collaboration. Instead the pair take turns, chapter by chapter crafting an unusual narrative about twenty-something pot-growing siblings Lacey and Paul Hansen. When someone dumps a headless corpse on the siblings’ Northern Californian property, the two have no choice but to get rid of the body. But the corpse just won’t stay gone–turning up time and time again. With an interesting mystery, a never-ending cast of off-beat characters and the even more offbeat notes between the two authors, readers will torn as to which is more entertaining- the bickering siblings or the bickering co-authors.

Reviewed by Lanine Bradley

 

America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

By David R. Goldfield
Bloomsbury, $35.00, 632 pages

From the onset, Goldfield asks his readers if there is anything that can be added to the enormous volume of literature about the Civil War that has not already been written.  Indeed to those students of American history, the procession of events is well known. However, Goldfield provides details about religious sentiment throughout the North and South, and how inept the elected politicians were at handling the real issues plaguing the nation — details seldom addressed in much of our post-modern texts.

The sheer volume of work Goldfield arranges constitutes a staggering undertaking, and yet this narration flows easily from the earliest religious and political conflicts to its bloody conclusion. “The Fugitive Slave Law, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, the Dred Scott decision, and the Lecompton fraud convinced many Northerners that slavery society bred despotism.”

A Robert E. Lee Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Goldfield arms his work with a plethora of minute details that time and distance have all but erased; for example, the exquisite ironies employed by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the effects of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on both Northerners and Southerners. All in all, this excellent book displays the irreconcilable differences that won us the distinction of being the only civilized country in the world to require a war to abolish slavery.

Reviewed by Casey Corthron

 

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

By Sue Macy
National Geographic Children’s, $18.95, 96 pages

Wheels of Change is a must-read for young women and anyone who loves bicycling. Author Sue Macy and publisher National Geographic Society did superlative work pulling together the early history of the bicycle and its impact on women.  When horses and wagons were the mode of transportation, bicycles became what automobiles are today. Bicycles brought women freedom of movement. They brought change in fashion, from uncomfortable, restrictive clothing, to bloomers. Women raced — and won! — against men. Women rode bicycles around the world. In 1896, Susan B Anthony believed, “bicycling … has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” This well-researched, lively narrated book is both inspiring and empowering for young women.

Wheels of Change cycles through interesting bicycle trivia, including: bicycling notably reduced the sale of cigars; and the November 1895 British Medical Journal reported morphine users “discovered that a long spin in the fresh air on a cycle induces sweet sleep better than their favorite drug.” Bicycling became the first exercise for women. Bicycles appeared in songs, literature, and advertising. Cyclists joined together with farmers to get better roads built to improve transportation. In their time, bicycles changed the world.  The book also includes how bicycles continue to change women’s freedom in third-world countries today.

Reviewed by Susan Roberts

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…But enough about what WE think. What was YOUR favorite book of 2011?

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