Book Review: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

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Published: 2016

I came across this book when I was back in Canada and it immediately caught my eye. I went to Japan a year ago and loved the culture and land, so much so, that I didn’t want to go home. That might be the reason for my attraction to the novel’s cover and plot line I read at the back. I don’t speak Japanese and sadly don’t know the history as much as I would like to. I hoped that this book would give me a little taste of Japan, while being on the other side of the word.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands, is the first book, out of four, in The Tale of Shikanoko series by Lian Hearn (real name Gillian Rubinstein). The story takes place on a fictional island that strongly resembles medieval Japan, and apparently references real life events in Japan’s history. I did some digging on the author who I was surprised wasn’t Japanese but rather a British-Australian who was inspired to write the series after watching a sword and deer dance rehearsal in Iwate prefecture during her visit. She has previously written a fantastical historical-fiction series based in a fictional land resembling Japan, but she wanted to explore different Japanese warrior tales with this series.

I think that the author does a good job of trying to sound authentic, and by this I mean by using terminology and phrases that sounds like it would be written from that time period i.e. avoid using phrases such as ‘buzzing with electricity’ as electricity wouldn’t have existed in that time. The author had written on her website that:

“I wanted to try and recreate this medieval world where the human response to both nature and the spiritual world was one of awe and wonder.” (Lian’s Website)

I definitely feel that she accomplished that with this book. It merges medieval Japan with magical and spiritual elements like no other book I have read before has done. It makes it feel quite fantastical, similar amalgamation of real world with the magical world as Patrick Rothfuss has done, which the exception of his being much more comprehensive.

The book is about a boy, Shikanoko, who’s father dies and mother abandons them from the grief, who is then left under the care of his ambitious and hard-lined uncle.  Although, Shikanoko is the rightful heir to the land, he quickly realises that he:

“…would probably never be allowed to grow up, let alone inherit the estate” (8)

With his life being at the mercy of his uncle he realises that there is nothing left for him at his home, and contemplates escape. His suspicions are confirmed when on a hunting trip with his uncle he finds him pointing his bow at him rather than the stag they both spotted. That very stag saves his life by frantically jumping on top of him, taking the arrow instead and knocking him down a cliff by which time the uncle presumed him dead. And so begin his adventures…

I think the contents and general plot is fantastic, and I found myself breezing through the book. However, at 250 pages I think the novel falls short of being an epic saga that it’s trying to be. I wish it had more depth to the story and that we got a better glimpse into Shikanoko and some of the other supporting characters. I felt that it all happened quite quickly and ended too soon for my liking.

In terms of the writing style, I really quite enjoyed the neutral and disjointed manner in which the author wrote the book in. I appreciated it because it felt quite Japanese and reflective the era it was trying to write in; medieval Japan. At the same time, it lacked the level of detail (can’t believe I am saying this!) that enable me to get properly immersed in this tale and the fictional place she was trying to create. Maybe this was because I had it read it after Patrick Rothfuss’ novels which are so rich and detailed, so this stood out as a bit of negative for me.

Q: Have you read a book that has been based in a culture or region that you were interested in?

 

 

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Teaser Tuesday: Sept 4

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly book meme originally featured at Should Be Reading. To participate, just open the book you are currently reading to a random page, and choose two ‘teaser’ sentences from somewhere on that page. (no spoilers!)

Moving on from the magic and fantasy of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles was quite tough, as I am sure you could tell from my reviews of it, but I can’t stress how engaging and interesting this non-fiction book has been so far! Such a fascinating and relevant theme in the current political climate!

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“Individual leaders, ideas, technology and other factors all play a role in shaping events, but they are temporary. Each new generation will still face the physical obstructions created by the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas; the challenges created by the rainy season; and the disadvantages of limited access to natural minerals or food sources.” (xi)

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

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Published: 2007

To start off, sorry for not taking a nicer photo of the book, but I have lent it to my brother in Canada so I don’t actually have the copy on me at the moment. I’ve also read this book over a year ago but just getting to the review now as I have recently finished the second book in the series, and wanted to review each one separately. So here I go!

Sadly, I’ve been a little bit let down by fantasy books in the last year or two, primarily because I attempted to read the Wheel of Time series (after a high recommendation from my boyfriend) and really, really struggled my way through that one. I did not connect to any of the characters and struggled with the detailed writing of the author which put me off tremendously. I somehow managed to get through 3 of the books in the 13 book series, before giving up (I really did try I promise!). That’s why when my boyfriend recommended this series I was very cautious and took some time off from fantasy before trying this one.

Nonetheless, I was not disappointed. Although similar in length to a Wheel of Time book, it was a million times more engaging and interesting. The book is a coming of age story; instead of centring around an epic showdown between good and evil it’s more about following the main character’s, Kvothe’s, life and development. We are introduced to Kvothe in the pub that he owns. As the story progresses we instantly pick up that this character possesses unique qualities and there is something special about him. Eventually, he begins to recite the story of his life to the Chronicler, essentially a scribe, and this is where our journey begins. We then flutter between third person narration in the present tense and Kvothe’s first person narration of his life throughout the novel.

What I absolutely love about this book, is that even though it’s set in a completed fantastical world, it feels very realistic. It strangely gave me very similar vibes to Harry Potter in this way. Although the world created is completely fantastical, and filled with magical elements, it’s very relatable. I think the key to making this feel relatable, similar to Harry Potter, is the way Patrick Rothfuss captures and highlights the main characters growth and transformation. For me, that’s the fascination and the main appeal to the book for me. Why does he behave or react in that way? That’s what keeps me so intrigued. Even though I may not necessarily agree with the main character, I can follow his thought process and understand where he’s coming from. His personality is so vivid and clear to me, it’s almost like I know him in real life as well.

That’s not to say there is no plot and it doesn’t matter. Not at all. There is loads that happens and we travel along with Kvothe on his journey between different places and points in his life. However, the author isn’t afraid to stay in the same location for a period of time and get into a routine of life either. I think this is another element that makes the book realistic. It’s not fantastical action all the time, but rather, Kvothe faces problems and dilemmas very similar to real life like trouble with friends, making enemies, not having sufficient funds, studying for school, and just generally how to behave and act around people. All very relatable issues for us, yet all based in a magical land.

Speaking of magical land, Patrick Rothfuss does an amazing job with creating a complex yet clearly very well thought out world. There are so many elements that he manages to tie together and sound convincing. At the same time, he doesn’t over-do it and make it so complicated that you are flipping between the map and the text every 5 minutes. If you are looking for a Lord of the Rings or Wheel of Time complicated type of fantasy world, I think you might feel a bit short changed. However, this is exactly why it does appeal to me. The world is complex yet manageable and it doesn’t feel like he gives you any superfluous information and detail that takes up pages but doesn’t actually lead you anywhere.

Overall, I was tremendously pleased with this book and I couldn’t recommend it more. Judging from the positive ratings and reactions on the internet it seems that it has managed to capture the imagination of many other readers out there! So what are you waiting for?

 

Q: Have you heard of this series? If so, what do you think?

 

 

Teaser Tuesday: Aug 14

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly book meme originally featured at Should Be Reading. To participate, just open the book you are currently reading to a random page, and choose two ‘teaser’ sentences from somewhere on that page. (no spoilers!)

I have been recommended this series by my boyfriend and have read the first book maybe a year ago now. Not sure why it took me a year to start the second book, seeing as I loved the first one. Check out the little teaser for The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.

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“‘No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leverer, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass.  A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of  quiet introspection.” (847)

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Published: 1985

I am going to acknowledge that I haven’t been reading as many Canadian novels as I should be really, but I blame living on another continent for that! I actually came across Hulu’s TV series of the Handmaid’s Tale on the plane that reminded me of this book and convinced me to read this a second time. I watched the first episode and was so hooked that when I got home I immediately had to re-read it!

Yes that’s right I have already read this book, but it was a little while ago now, when I was in university studying English Literature. I remember at the time that I enjoyed the book, but it hadn’t stood out for me a lot. Thinking back, I think this might have been because the course/module was all about dystopian novels so the theme got a little repetitive and I read it on the back of one of my favourite books of all time, Don DeLillo’s White Noise so maybe that’s why it didn’t stick with me.

However this time around, I couldn’t put the book down. It was such a haunting book – primarily because I could imagine the themes dealt in it happening in the real world. Any dystopian novel that gives me the creeps because it feels plausible deserves 4 stars!

We journey through the novel through Offred’s narration. To me it feels like an interview, with her sitting across from me re-telling me her life story, often skipping to moments before the totalitarian and theocratic state took over the United States to highlight and help us understand how we even got there. What we learn, is that the country is experiencing dangerously low reproduction rates due to pollution and chemical spills.  A political coup takes over whose solution to this issue is to restrict women’s freedoms, where women cannot own property or have jobs. They forcefully indoctrinate fertile women, to be subservient to men and to focus their entire lives around producing children. Once they graduate from the Red centre, the women then become Handmaids and are placed in the homes of the elite that are struggling to produce offspring. Offred sole purpose in life now becomes to perform wordless, emotionless sexual intercourse with the commander of the house once a month in an attempt to produce them a child that she will then never see again.

I found this theme of restricting women’s freedoms especially poignant in todays society, given the media rise and attention to inequality in the modern world today. It’s a little scary reading this book alongside the #metoo movement and media’s slow reveal of the constant and current gender inequality in the workforce, as it highlights are own imperfections and issues. Of course, the book is playing on an extreme, but you can’t help but see how easily it could happen should the political and economic atmosphere changes rapidly, especially if people in todays world demonstrates some of that sort of behaviour and beliefs.

 

Q: Which dystopian novel most resonates with you? I’d love to understand why!

 

 

Teaser Tuesday: July 3rd

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly book meme originally featured at Should Be Reading. To participate, just open the book you are currently reading to a random page, and choose two ‘teaser’ sentences from somewhere on that page. (no spoilers!)

So I decided to go away from magic and dystopia, and instead educate myself a little bit with this read 🤓 Don’t mind if I do! I find that many non-fiction novels can be very poorly written, and just a bombardment of names, dates and time. But I am loving already about this book is there is a clear structure that Matthew Kneale follows. Each chapter has three parts: introduction to the enemy that is about to sack Rome at different points in it’s life, then part 2 talks about what the enemies would see in Rome at that period, followed by the conclusion of the sacking and how it took place. So far so good!

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“What kind of Rome awaited Henry IV and his army? Of the seven incarnations of the city that will be examined in this book, that of 1081 was certainly the strangest. It was a kind of Gulliver’s Travels town, where tiny houses existed among the ruins. Many Romans lived actually inside the ruins, which they called cryptae, making their homes in the broken remains of thousand-year-old apartment blocks, in long dry baths, and in the storerooms and corridors of abandoned theatres and stadiums. The Colosseum was now the city’s largest housing complex.'” (123-4)

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

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Published: 2015

As you might already know, I am an avid fan of Bill Bryson. I reviewed his book One Summer and since then have read three of his other books (during my hiatus period) which were all equally as good. I love how he’s able to make even the most science and technical books (such as The History of Nearly Everything) fun and engaging. I couldn’t stop laughing throughout and he makes things that I never thought I would be interested in, very fun to read about.

You could therefore appreciate my excitement when I decided to treat myself to this book. I loved the premise of it; Bill Bryson traveling around the UK stopping at different locations throughout the country and reviewing those places, along with a few rambles about the current affairs, some random unknown infamous people and just his general thoughts. I already appreciated his humour and I was curious to know where he would stop on his journey and get his musings on life in the UK. Likewise, I was hoping to use this as inspiration for any future road trips throughout the UK, thinking he might stumble upon and highlight some little gems that aren’t as obvious.

The book started off in Bryson’s usual happy-go-lucky attitude and humour. We first covered the south of England, and it included a few interesting points about London. The one thing I absolutely loved was the foreign perspective he had on the UK – felt right at home to me. He’s actually born and raised in Iowa, of all places, but has lived and worked in the UK for over twenty years. I loved how he pointed out the oddities that he encountered in the UK about it’s culture, because these mirrored me feelings and thoughts about the UK too. Take this quote for example:

“The most dismaying loss, I think, is of front gardens. People seem strangely intent on getting their cars as close to their living rooms as possible, and to that end have been ripping out their little front gardens and replacing them with service areas so that there is always a place for their cars and wheels bins. I don’t quite understand why they are permitted to do this since nothing more obviously ruins a street.” (88)

I totally agree with him, and since reading this bit have brought this up with my friends and have just noticed it more in real life which is really neat for a book to resonate with you like that.

Likewise, throughout the book, he highlighted some shocking and poignant aspects about British culture as well as the changing attitudes. For example, he highlights the importance of keeping green belts instead of building semi-faster trains between late cities:

“The first and most dangerous charge routinely laid against the green belt is that it isn’t actually all that special, that much of the land is scrubby and degraded. Well, you decide. According to a study by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, green belts in England contain 30,000 kilometres of footpaths and other rights of way, 220,000 hectares of woodland, 250,000 hectares of top quality farmland, and 89,000 hectares of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. That sounds to me like things worth keeping.” (164)

This rant is great because he not only highlights his opinion but also provides supplementary facts to back up his thoughts. I always appreciate when authors do this as it makes it much more poignant, instead of an author just going on about what they think. So this explains why this book has earned the 2 stars that I had given it.

Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse for Bryson as the book goes on.

His rants stop being well thought out, and rather turn a bit pessimistic and confusing. He visits some towns and complains how devoid of people and tourist they are and how sad that is, but then also complains about the “thriving” towns for being overpopulated and too crowded. He doesn’t really express what the happy medium is for him which makes him just sound grumpy and irritable.

There is also a lot of repetition and I feel like he just rushed the second half of the book. He provided little interesting facts about the town and kept just repeating himself. He also described the types of shops that the town had open, i.e. cafes, restaurants, pubs, grocery stores etc, in great length, which was fine as the high street is reflective of how “well” a town is doing, but he could have been more creative about talking about other elements as well. This way they all blended into one for me and he failed to provide any interesting insight.

He also completely dismisses some towns and cities as being not worth his time without giving them a chance which I found a bit annoying. For example, when he arrives into Manchester all he can manage to do is grumble about having to pay 30p to use the loo (interestingly he doesn’t highlight that the same principle applies throughout many central stations such as London Euston). He literally dedicated an entire paragraph about that. From that paragraph he just launches into a another rant, this time about the food tax which he happen to experience when at Manchester Piccadilly. That lasts about 5 paragraphs. The only other thing he mentions about Manchester:

“I had decided already not to stay in Manchester. It was a Sunday and I couldn’t face spending a Sunday evening wandering around a dead city centre town.” (390)

I found this to be very dismissive and parochial view on England’s second biggest city.

Lastly, based on his extensive rants and “thoughts”, he doesn’t sound like the person I envisioned him being. He comes across pompous at times, and is often irritated. He has a handful of outbursts when things don’t seem to go his way, or he privately thinks some pretty awful things about people. The first few times it’s funny, but because of how often he does it, it comes across as pompous to me, for example:

“I had a sandwich and a cup of tea in the cafe and was feeling so benignly pleased with the whole experience that I didn’t bitch even privately to myself that the sandwich was a little dry and cost roughly double what, in a reasonable world, it should have. Well, maybe I did bitch inwardly just a little, but I didn’t say anything grumbly to anyone and that is surely a mark of progress.” (273)

I don’t really see the point of highlighting that repeatedly throughout the book. It made him sound like an awful person, whether someone deserved it or not. This alongside his other behaviour actually made him sound quite pretentious and it did ruin the book for me.

It’s a bit of a shame because I was really looking forward to reading this book. I’m not sure if his first Notes from a Small Island book is any better, but I felt this one didn’t live up to my expectations so I am in no hurry to find out. I also feel like I know the author better, but not sure it does him any favours for me. By the end of the book, he sounded like an old grumpy man that wanted a platform to rant about how terrible the country is and how it’s going to the dogs. Not really the type of read I particularly choose to read! The only other positive thing I could say about this book, is that I got in on offer so only wasted about £2.95 and half a day of my life reading it. I think that’s a loss I am willing to take.

 

Q: Have you ever been disappointed by one of your favourite authors? If so, who were they and what disappointed you?

 

 

Wednesday Wondering: Character Connections

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Time for another special edition of Wednesday Wonderings by yours truly, Friendly Bookworm! Unlike my other posts which consist of talking about specific books, here, I like to discuss and focus on different elements of literature and reading in general. So let’s get started!

In my youth I was terribly obsessed with horses and animals more generally. I used to read The Saddle Club religiously, devouring all the available books in that series from my local library. One time, I even recall getting the poor librarian to ship one of the books in the series from a library across the province (I grew up in Canada where we have provinces, instead of “states” or “counties”).

At the beginning of my literary adventure/career, all that mattered to me were the plot lines (must be something to do with horses), the interesting adventures that characters went on (usually with their horses). As I grew older, however, my interest gravitated from plot lines towards the characters themselves. Why do they react the way they do? What are the different personalities that permeate each book? How do the characters themselves influence plot?

It was around this time that I did well in my English classes and actually took interest in the books we were were reading for them. Eventually, I learned to contain my obsession with horses and expand my book reading genre – which I am sure helped me a lot. It was so interesting to learn about different characters in different areas of the world. I loved reading about the American south, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, or learning about the Cold War through the allegorical novella Animal Farm by George Orwell. I realised that there were so many more elements in books beyond plot lines that would books so much more satisfying then just on the surface plot lines.

Now, a new book or a series could be in  a make-it-or-break-it situation if I’m to a fan of the characters. Take for example (and my boyfriend is going to be so upset when I write about this) The Wheel of Time series. The plots are extremely lengthy but all the characters are the same, especially the women. They all have the same characteristics which I don’t feel like I can connect to. The author, Robert Jordan, does a slightly better job with the men in the series, but it still doesn’t go far enough for me, or doesn’t offer a large enough range. I think this is something that George R.R. Martin does a lot better in his Game of Thrones series, as he does provide some variety.

Reading back through what I just read it might sound that if I can’t relate to a character then I dislike the book. Although that’s how I felt for a period in my life, take the Harry Potter series for example, my favourite character was Hermoine and sometimes learning about how she reacts in situations was more interesting for me than what was happening in the book or how the main character was reacting. Obviously she was fictional character but she possessed attributes that I could relate to and strove towards.

Now, I’m more interested to see the author using different characters to explore the human psyche. I think that’s why I loved East of Eden as much as I did. The plot line was sub-par but that wasn’t the purpose of the novel. The sense I got was that the whole point of the novel was for the author to explore how nature and nurture battled it out in the characters from their birth and analysed their behaviours and reactions to different scenarios. I thought this was so cool – it’s like people watching but knowing how they actually think or feel in the situations instead of just assuming or making up what they might feel.

Mind you this doesn’t mean that I gave up on plot all together. A book definitely needs at least something to push me along, but I’d just learned plot/adventure isn’t integral for me. Rest assured, if a novel has both then it’s absolute magic!

Q: Do you have any preferences when reading a new book? What’s most important for you?

Teaser Tuesday: June 5th

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly book meme originally featured at Should Be Reading. To participate, just open the book you are currently reading to a random page, and choose two ‘teaser’ sentences from somewhere on that page. (no spoilers!)

You might already know that I am pretty obsessed with Bill Bryson. He’s definitely one of my favourite authors as his writing style is so unique. He can make any subject entertaining and you find yourself going through his book at record speed because you really can’t put them down. So here is another small sample from the latest book by him that I’m currently reading The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island.

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” The first principle of a British system is that is should only appear systematic. That is the nub of it really…If you suggest to any British person that there is anything odd or irregular about any part of a British system – let’s say, just for the sake of argument, about weights and measures – they get instantly iffy and say, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.'” (185-188)

Book Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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Published: 1952

This book came into my life quite randomly. I was back in Canada for Christmas and I saw my brother reading it, and just asked him what he thought of it. He said it was a good book, and one day when I had a couple of hours spare I thought I’d just read the first chapter to get a sense of the book. About 5 chapters later I was completely hooked on this book and couldn’t put it down. I knew I had to have this in my life!

The story is set in Salinas Valley, California, but throughout the novel we do bounce around to different areas in the states as well as time periods, at one point we de get taken back to the American Civil War. The story follows several generations of two families and their lives, the Trasks and the Hamiltons as the author explores themes such as identity, love, evil, and paternal rejection, just to name a few.

It’s a decent sized book, and I felt like it was some sort of a psychological experiment, to see how people’s identity is shaped by nature (genetics/family genealogy) and nurture (events and people). I re-read that last sentence and it makes it sound a bit boring, but with the author’s incredibly captivating writing style it’s anything but boring.  We follow a number of different characters with different traits so it’s easy to relate to at least one of them. The characters themselves are anything but stock, and  they feel very relatable as they make mistakes and bad decisions as we all know we call can make in life.

As the book is based in America, the author also explores America’s identity. I found this especially poignant given the release and popularity of Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” where he explored the nature of America and it’s downfalls, through the perspective of African-Americans. There is one quote in particular that really drove home the tumultuous character of America home for me:

” ‘We all have heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed – selected out by accident. And so we’ve over-brave and over-fearful – we’ve kind and cruel as children. We’re over-friendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re over sentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic – and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture.’ ” (689)

We can’t talk about America without talking about freedom of course, as they go hand in hand. That’s why the author’s exploration of the power of free will. Early on, the author preaches this idea that we all have the right to choose between good and evil, even if our lives up until then were dictated by one or another. This is particularly poignant as all the characters will battle with this issue of choosing between good and evil:

” ‘And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.’ ” (161)

After reading up on the author you can’t help but feel like this is semi-autobiographical, as reading about John Steinbeck’s life draws many similarities to the book. He was born and grew up in Salinas, California, and has a mixed heritage upbringing.

Steinbeck was also highly conscious of religion in his work, and you feel it permeating throughout the novel – although he himself would become agnostic, which is interesting in itself. The story of Cain and Abel is the most prevalent one, with Adam and Charles being parallels to this story and then later Adam’s twins would be opposites. The large Task fortune becomes a symbol of “original sin” which is a Christian belief that sin has been passed down from through every human generation since the fall of the biblical Adam and Even, which would be another Christian motif.

In conclusion, I absolutely loved this book. The complex characters made it a joy to read and also made this a book one that you can read over and over again and always find something new it in to appreciate and admire.

Q: Have you read a book by John Steinbeck? Which one and what did you think?