Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Time to throw in the towel

Well, it's finally time to admit that I'm not going to finish my CBR this year. I was going for a half, and I've only made it a quarter. Disappointing, but it's been difficult to find the time to read between working two jobs and visiting Matt all summer. I have one final review that I could post, for Justin Cronin's "The Passage," but I'm too defeated to even bother. Ah well.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

CBRIII Book 14: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

As I was flipping through the book advertisements at the back of the last book in my CBR, the Brave New Worlds anthology, I found an ad for a book of apocalyptic fiction also edited by Adams. Naturally, I had to check it out. In Brave New Worlds, Adams demonstrated a knack for picking engrossing short stories, and in Wastelands, he didn't disappoint.

There were several stories that I thought stood out above the others. "The People of Sand and Slag" by Paulo Bacigalupi describes a future in which people have been bioengineered to the point of almost immortality. A group of mercenaries come across a dog, a species thought to be extinct, and try to figure out what to do with it. The story was rather moving, and made me wonder, if pain could be eliminated from our lives, would love and compassion go with it?

Another story that I loved was Jerry Oltion's "Judgement Passed." A group of astronauts returns to Earth to discover that the Rapture has occurred without them. They're left to wonder if they're better off in their newly emptied world or if perhaps God will come back for them... but one of them doesn't want to sit around and wait.

Dave Bailey's "The End of the World as We Know It" puts the phrase in a different context - it gives a look at how one specific individual's world comes to an end due to a personal tragedy... that happens during the apocalypse. It's incredibly touching, and I won't deny that it moved me to tears.

The anthology also included several stories I'd already read, like Cory Doctorow's "When Sysadmins Ruled the World," which I hated the first time I read it, and Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds," which is one of my favorite short stories of all time from my favorite author. And, of course, there were a few stories I didn't really enjoy, like Gene Wolfe's "Mute," which is supposed to benefit from repeat readings, but I had to scour the internet for clues as to the meaning of the story.

It appears that Adams has several other anthologies out there, like one devoted entirely to zombie stories. I'll definitely have to look for that one, and I recommend this one as well as the previous anthology to anyone interested in some wonderful short stories.

Monday, June 6, 2011

CBRIII Book 13: Brave New Worlds edited by John Joseph Adams

John Joseph Adams is a man after my own heart. He has pulled together an anthology of dystopian literature titled "Brave New Worlds" that spans the genre from one of the earliest (and best known) stories, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," to recent works by authors like Paolo Bacigalupi and Genevieve Valentine. What caught my eye, besides the title that evokes my favorite novel, was the list of authors on the cover: Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so on - a veritable cornucopia of talent!

It's a huge book, with 34 stories that explore all sorts of different futures and worlds. Of course, some are better than others. I couldn't put down "Auspicious Eggs," by James Morrow, which envisions a future where reproduction is the law. S. L. Gilbow's "Red Card" is a clever little story about what happens when society gives a few select individuals a license to kill. And "Pervert" by Charles Coleman Finlay flips our society's obsession with sexuality and ponders a future in which heterosexuality is seen as a perversion.

There are a few stories that I didn't care for, like Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lunatics," which just sort of droned on and on for what seemed like ages. But for the most part, this anthology is packed with fantastic stories with themes that range from religion to sexuality to how technology is shaping our lives - and the lives of those to come. It even includes such classics as Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" and Philip K. Dick's "The Minority Report."

I think that this book is an excellent choice for summer reading. The short story format is perfect for a day at the beach, or catching a chapter or two between cat naps in your hammock in your backyard. Some stories are only 2 or 3 pages long, so you can read an entire story and still get to enjoy the rest of your vacation. One thing's for certain for me - I will definitely be adding this collection to my library. Adams has done a wonderful job of collecting some amazing fiction in this anthology.

Monday, April 25, 2011

CBR III Book 12: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher really needs no introduction. If you don't know who she is, you've clearly never heard of Star Wars, so you're probably either a hermit or someone who was born in the last few years. (And if so, what are you doing on the internet?!? Where are your parents?!?) Wishful Drinking is the book adaptation of her successful one-woman show in which she shares the details of her life in the spotlight, from the scandalous breakup of her famous parents to the role that made her a superstar in George Lucas's blockbuster trilogy and her messy post-Leia life of drugs, bad marriages, and electroshock therapy.

The book is a little blip of a thing, and I imagine it plays very well as a stage show. I kinda wish I had seen the show instead of read the book, because I feel like some of Fisher's wit falls a bit flat on the page. Still, it's definitely an interesting read - the section on her parents' various marriages and divorces alone was worth picking up the book. I haven't read any of Fisher's other novels, but after this one, I might check them out.

CBR III Book 11: The Broke Diaries by Angela Nissel

I have to admit, what drew me to this book was definitely the title. Since we moved back to PA, we've been living modestly, trying to save every penny we can, so most of the time, I feel like I'm constantly broke. So when I saw this book, which is the book form of a blog started by Angela Nissel while she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I thought I could commiserate with the author.

I was wrong. When Nissel says "broke," she means down to her last dollar. Thankfully, I haven't experienced half of what she went through. I haven't been so broke that I flirted with the man from the power company to keep him from shutting off my electricity. I haven't had to use my cat's water dish as an extra mixing bowl while making cheesecake because I only owned two bowls (yup, she really did this). Her "misadventures," as she calls them, are simultaneously cringe-worthy and hilarious. No matter how dire things get, how many phone calls from collectors she has to dodge, or how many weirdos at the check cashing store she tries to avoid, Nissel never loses her cool or her sharp wit.

I was pleased to find out that Nissel found success not only with this book, but with another that she wrote called "Mixed," which details her life growing up as a child of mixed race. It made me happy to learn that because reading Nissel is like listening to stories from a funny friend - you find yourself rooting for her and hoping things will work out in the end.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

CBRIII Book 10: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

It should come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I loved this book. LOVED IT. A story about a young man who discovers a world of magic that lies beyond our own? I didn't stand a chance against this book.

Quentin Coldwater is disillusioned. At the young age of 17, he's tired of his home in New York City, and the ever-pervading feeling that the life he's living is not the life that was intended for him. He longs to discover that his real life exists elsewhere... like the magical world of Fillory, a Narnia-esque fantasy world created by an author named Christopher Plover. Quentin is a huge fan of the Fillory series, and secretly compares his life to the adventures of the Chatwin family in the series. A smart, sharp, brooding teenager (is there any other kind?), Quentin is on his way to an interview with a Princeton alum when things go awry - the interviewer is dead, and left behind in a file for Quentin to find is a manuscript for a sixth Fillory book - a book that does not exist. Intrigued, Quentin opens the book and slips down the proverbial rabbit hole, ending up on the grounds of a school in upstate New York - Brakebills College. He discovers in short time that magic is real, and he is being offered the chance to study it at Brakebills if he passes an exam unlike any other he's ever taken. Quentin naturally jumps at the chance - could the life he'd been longing for actually be real? It may not be Fillory, but it's something amazing and new, and worlds away from his life in high school.

Soon, Quentin is a student at Brakebills, learning how to cast spells while trying to figure out his specific Discipline (a specific area of magic that he'll focus on, like picking a major at college). This is no Hogwarts, though, and it's clear that there is a dark side to everything he learns. As the years pass by, Quentin slowly comes to realize that he can do anything he wants, with the magic he's learned - so what is there to do when you can literally do anything? He again experiences disillusionment and fears that he's losing the battle when one of his classmates comes to him with an amazing discovery - Fillory is real, and is theirs for the taking. He and his friends travel to Fillory to discover the truth behind Plover's stories - and to discover their fate once and for all.

I could go on and on about this book - it's filled from start to finish with captivating adventures. One scene in particular has stuck with me since reading the novel. One typical day, while stuck in a boring lecture, Quentin tries to find a way to entertain himself by causing the professor to mess up his lecture, and inadvertently creates a spell that allows an otherworldly creature referred to as "the Beast" to cross over into their world. Grossman creates such a permeating sense of absolute dread that you can't help but feel as terrified and helpless as the students feel in being trapped in the hall with the Beast as it stalks about playing with its prey.

I found myself identifying with Quentin's ongoing inability to just live in the moment and enjoy it. I mean, who hasn't at one time or another looked around and thought, "Is this it? Is this really how my life is?" And even as Quentin gets the chance to live the life he thought he wanted, he's still not sure if it's going to lead to the happiness he's been missing. I've read some reviews that thought that Quentin was basically a big idiot - he got his wish, what is he waiting for?, that kind of thing - but to me that just made the character more realistic.

I've heard the book described as "Harry Potter for adults." That's a very easy comparison to make, but I think the world that Grossman has created here is strong enough to stand on its own. Brakebills and all of its students felt very real to me, and Fillory comes to life in the last section of the book. Grossman is working on a sequel to be released sometime this year. I cannot wait to read what new adventures he's come up with since he finished the Magicians.

CBR III Book 9: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby is a British author whose works are well-liked and have been adapted into many movies: Fever Pitch, About a Boy, High Fidelity, etc. "A Long Way Down" is a trifle of a book that I can't imagine would make a very good film, but it does have that Hornby wit that elevates it above a typical mindless read.

On New Year's Eve, four strangers find themselves on the top of Topper House in London, a building with a reputation as a last stop for those considering suicide. Martin is a breakfast tv show host who has messed up his life due to a scandalous affair with an underage girl; Maureen is a single mother who has devoted her life to her (both physically and developmentally) handicapped son; Jess is a slightly loony British teen who hides a family secret; and JJ is the lone American of the group, a musician who is trying to come to terms with the end of his career. Although they're all considering jumping, none of them are able to do it in front of the others, and they end up forming an unlikely bond. The book follows the group as they leave Topper House together and, over the next few months, try to figure out what led them there in the first place and if it's worth changing their lives to they don't end up there in the future.

All four characters take turns narrating the novel, and it helps to hear what's going on in each of their heads. Of all the characters, Maureen stuck with me the most, because she had the worst circumstances, and yet her life is the most improved by the end in very simple ways. But I have the feeling that in a month's time, I won't even remember the names of the characters. This is a very quick, easy read that doesn't leave much of an impression behind - not that there's anything wrong with that.