Wednesday, October 27, 2010

CR Book 27: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

My final entry in this year's CR (it ends in November, right?) was crap. Utter crap.

So... I was drawn to this book after I heard the basic premise. Two words: "Killer unicorns."

Sounds awesome, right?

Astrid Llewelyn is a sixteen year old girl who dreams of becoming a doctor. She's a typical teen girl, caustically sarcastic, constantly fending off her boyfriend's advances and fighting with her mother. She and her mother Lilith don't see eye to eye on most things, the biggest of which is her mom's firm belief in the existence of unicorns. But these aren't your typical, fluffy, friendly unicorns, the kind you might see Robocop riding. No, these are the venomous, snarling, bloodthirsty beasts Robocop probably wishes he could ride. And according to Lilith, Astrid is descended from an Order of unicorn hunters known as the Order of the Lioness, which extends back to Alexander the Great's descendants. Astrid, naturally, believes her mother is loopy and that unicorns are mythical.

Then, one night, as Astrid is trying to keep her boyfriend out of her pants, they're attacked by a wild unicorn. Astrid calls her mother in a panic after the boy is mortally wounded, and Lilith arrives with something called "the Remedy," which is somehow extracted from unicorns and has magically healing abilities. Not long after the attack, Lilith informs Astrid that the unicorns are reemerging, and the Order must stand once more to fight... which means Astrid will be moving to Rome post-haste to live in a Cloister and train to be a hunter.

Yup, a Cloister. Because only virgin girls can fight unicorns. They are drawn to the girls because the girls possess a "potentia illicere," which the author never bothered to explain and my Google-fu tells me that it roughly translates to "alluring power." So, magic. Or whatever. Unicorns like 'em pure, apparently.

So Astrid goes to Rome, meets the other virgins who have been sent to the Cloister, and tries to amp herself up to devote herself to fighting unicorns. It's not as easy as it sounds, though, as unicorns possess super healing abilities - you basically have to cut off their heads or cut out their hearts to get them to die. And Astrid feels like her mother has forced her into this life, which she basically has, and tries to find a way out. The most obvious way? Lose her virginity. Enter Giovanni, an American going to school in Rome. Will Astrid give in to temptation? Or will she stay true to her calling and protect the world from the scary horsies?

Should you even care? Not really.

My first gut reaction to reading this book was, Look, another lame attempt to cash in on the supernatural craze kicked off by Twilight! Seriously. I think when Stephanie Meyer finished her last novel, she created this vortex of Suck that could only be filled by more Suck, and that's how this book ended up getting published. This one WAS published in 2009, but who knows, maybe it was kicking around before Twilight hit the presses.

Look, I'll be honest. I really wanted this book to be one of those so-bad-it's-good novels. But it's not. It's just BAD. Astrid is insufferable (rather like whiny Bella); she bitches and moans about everything. The unicorn stuff needed to be totally balls-out crazy, and the creatures needed to be terrifyingly scary, but the author kept undercutting their fearsomeness, like by giving the girls a pet unicorn named Bonegrinder who sounded rather adorable. The book kept forgetting its own rules and tripping up over details. For instance, regular people (aka not hunters) can't see unicorns because they're unable to see magical things. But then Giovanni is able to see them and it's never really addressed why he can or why the Don of the Cloister can as well. And then there's a whole subplot about the Remedy that goes nowhere until it's conveniently mentioned again at the end of the book, perhaps setting up a sequel (oh let's hope not).

I don't think this one is going to catch on like Twilight did. I just don't think the world wants scary unicorns. And I can't blame them. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to donate to Goodwill.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

CR Book 26: House of Leaves by Mark. Z. Danielewski

Well, I've achieved my goal of a half Cannonball Read. Not that I'm going to stop reading, but at least I've reached that point.

"House of Leaves" is a sprawling, audacious story within a story within a story... I think I hit all the levels there... that describes a documentary called The Navison Record. Will and Karen Navison have moved their small family into a house in the Virginia countryside and make an odd discovery: the house is larger on the inside than on the outside. Curious about this physical impossibility, Will (referred to as Navison or Navy by friends) brings in friends and family to help him determine how this could be. But the house is not finished playing with its inhabitants; doorways begin to appear in walls where nothing stood before, and soon a full hallway appears in their living room. Navison, a photojournalist who has never been afraid to explore and to capture his findings in film, decides to travel the hallway with the help of some well-know explorers and lots and lots of video cameras.

That's just the first story. On top of that, we have the work of Zampano, a blind man who has spent what would appear to be years compiling notes and references about The Navison Record. And on top of that, we have the footnotes (that tell the life story) of Johnny Truant, a loquacious ne'er-do-well who spends his days working in a tattoo parlor, dreaming of a stripper named Thumper, and his nights getting drunk with his friend, Lude, and charming drunk women with his ability to spin a good yarn. One night, Lude brings Johnny over to check out the deceased Zampano's (Lude's neighbor) apartment, and Johnny finds a trunk full of Zampano's work and decides to take it home.

Johnny's curiosity about the man's work quickly becomes an obsession, and as he tries to finish what Zampano started, his life begins to collapse around him. The shifts in his mental state appear to mirror the changes occurring in the Navison Record. One of the most impressive things about the novel is the way Danielewski plays with structure in order to give you the impression that the book itself is changing, just like the house. As Johnny's life begins to disintegrate, the footnotes become more chaotic; as Navy's explorations of the hallway begin to resemble that of someone wandering a labyrinth, so too do the words on the pages begin to change, moving backwards, upside-down, and so on. As you read, you feel just as lost and confused as Navy and Johnny (and I would assume Zampano, but I didn't get as strong a sense of him as I did the others).

The book is filled with Appendices and Exhibits that are full of poems, images, and extra bits meant to help support (or, in some cases, contradict) the work Zampano did on the Navison Record. But the most interesting addition would be the section titled "The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters," a series of letters from Johnny's mother that not only shed some light on his life, but IMO throw the whole veracity of everything into serious question. After all, Johnny tells us over and over in his footnotes that he's a fantastic storyteller; and he himself states that he's never found any record of The Navison Record even existing (as he states in the introduction); who's to say he didn't just make it all up?

If you go to, you'll find a whole message board devoted to puzzling out the truth behind this mazelike novel. I personally will be rereading this novel... not soon, but I know that I will be revisiting it. I might try to read it a different way next time - ignoring Johnny's footnotes altogether, then go back and read those alone. There's a lot to think about with this one; but no guaranteed answers. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I'm ok with not having clear answers. It's the journey, the experience of reading it, that's important with this book.

I've heard this called a horror novel, and that seems a bit misleading, but I can understand how it got that label. I myself actually got spooked enough that I had a nightmare and spent a sleepless night warding off bad dreams. Johnny talks of something lurking in the darkness, and, well, Danielewski creates a very realistic sense of dread that was enough to make me stop reading the book at night. But if you're looking for outright gore and scares, you won't find them here. This book is more about the empty spaces, the darkness in our lives, and what that means.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Book 25: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

*Mild SPOILERS for those who've not read the series*

Mockingjay is the third and final book in the Hunger Games series. The series tells the story of Katniss Everdeen of District 12 who is chosen to fight for her life in the annual Hunger Games in book 1, and again in the Quarter Quell in Book 2. At the end of the second book, Katniss is whisked away by the rebels who quickly tell her that a) District 13 exists and is fighting the Capitol and b) the Capitol has Peeta, her fellow tribute from District 12 and one of two men she cares deeply about... maybe even loves.

Book 3 begins with Katniss recovering from the Quell and trying to absorb all the info being thrown at her by the rebels. She and her family, and her friend Gale, the other important man in her life, are residing in the underground District 13. Katniss is asked by the rebels to become their Mockingjay: the face of the resistance, meant to rally support for the fight against the Capitol. But Katniss is unsure that she wants such an important role. One thing she is certain of is that Peeta is being kept and tortured by President Snow, the leader of Panem, and that she herself wants to kill Snow for what he's done to Peeta and to her through the Games. So she makes a deal with President Coin, leader of District 13 and the rebels: she'll be their Mockingjay in exchange for being the one to assassinate Snow. But before she can get to the President's Mansion in the Capitol, she'll have to help to bring all the Districts under rebel control and then bring the Capitol down.

Short summary, I know, but I don't want to spoil too much. I will say that, just as in the final book of the Potter series, the death count piles up right from the beginning. And the torture used on Peeta is pretty horrifying. Those expecting a big final showdown between Gale and Peeta over Katniss's affections will be disappointed, but I thought that things ended as they should. (But I could be called a fangirl, so I'm biased.)

One of the ways the rebels try to rally support is through their use of propaganda films they call "propos." They have a camera crew, complete with makeup artists and a director, who follow Katniss around the districts as she interacts with the wounded or fight the Capitol's helicopters. It reminded me a lot of that movie Wag the Dog, where a US president commissions a director to stage a war in order to divert attention from some wrongdoing he did. In Mockingjay, the war is very real, but the staging sometimes isn't, and it's interesting to see Katniss just accept that instead of protesting. She understands that the people of Panem are always "tuned in," as it is; the Hunger Games are mandatory broadcasts, after all. And what is the war against the Capitol but one big Game itself?

Out of the three books, I'd say this one was the weakest, but the first two set the bar pretty high. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I devoured it in two days, only stopping because I had to for work and socializing (damn social life!), and now I want to go back and reread the series to see how it all falls together. I definitely recommend it to anyone who might be turned off because it's a YA novel.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book 24: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

SPOILERS here for those who haven't read the book. I'd recommend skipping out after the second paragraph if you want to enjoy the book untainted.

Cloud Atlas is a novel that plays with the ideas of structure and narrative. It is six stories set in different time periods ranging from the 1800s to a postapocalyptic future. Each story begins and is interrupted halfway through by the next story until you reach the penultimate story which is told unbroken. After the finish of the last story, the others resume each after the completion of the previous story. It's rather like climbing a mountain - with each story, you progress higher until you reach the final story; then, as you come down the mountain, you pick up the end of each tale in reverse order that you started them.

The novel begins with the journal of Adam Ewing, an American notary who has sailed to the South Pacific for work and on his trip home finds himself the unlikely savior of a stowaway "savage" Maori. His journal is cutoff mid-sentence by the next story, which is a collection of letters sent from Robert Frobisher, a roguish musician in the 1930's who travels Europe and seduces a prominent composer into taking him on as an amanuensis [yeah, I had to look that up. It's basically a secretarial slave]. From Frobisher's journeys we then travel to California in the 1970s, where Luisa Rey, a journalist at a sleazy gossip rag has stumbled onto a conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. After Rey's story comes the "Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," which tells of how Cavendish, a publisher in London, ends up trapped against his will in a retirement home. The next story, my personal favorite, is an interview with Sonmi-451, a clone from the future corpocracy of Nea So Corpos, in the former region of Korea. From Sonmi's intriguing recollections we then move even further into the future, to what is left of Hawaii, as a "freakbirthed" Valleysman watches the last of humanity fight for survival. Each story represents a different style or genre of writing (for example, Rey's tale is a crime thriller), and Mitchell does a fine job of writing each style.

One of the interesting things about the structure of the novel is that each story (with the exception of the last) is being read or watched by the next. Frobisher finds Ewing's journal and comments on it in his letters; Rey reads Frobisher's letters; Cavendish is sent Rey's story as a manuscript; Sonmi-451 watches a movie version of Cavendish's ordeal; and Zachry (the Valleysman) views Sonmi's interview through a futuristic device that projects a hologram.

There is another way the author connects his stories. He mentions a comet-shaped birthmark that is shared by main protagonists of the story (save for the last - it's not the narrator but another character who bears the mark). The obvious interpretation of the mark here is reincarnation - that it's the same soul traveling through the ages. And just like how there's a sense of progression as you head deeper into the novel (or up the mountain, as I think of it), there's a progression of the soul from one lifetime to another - it evolves. It starts out as Ewing, a very proper man who sees how horribly humans treat one another (races enslaving others, for example) and chooses not to act; to Frobisher, who is driven by his own selfish impulses but strives to create something lasting through his music; to Rey, who sees an impending catastrophe and fights to prevent it; to Cavendish, who fights for his freedom; to Sonmi, who fights for the freedom of others, namely, her fellow clone slaves; and finally, to the character of Meronym, who fights with Zachry to prevent the loss of all humanity has achieved in the face of its most primal, base nature. The soul evolves from idle witness to proactive fighter - in every time period, the same problems are presented (the struggle for power and/or dominance between men, between races, between countries) and as the stories advance, the soul reaches its apex in the unbroken sixth story, and the ramifications are felt as the other stories come to their conclusions.

The more I reflect on the book, the more I find threads between the stories. And I wish that Mitchell would turn the chapter on Sonmi into a full novel; that story in particular is a very well fleshed out world that I would love to explore. The novel has been optioned by the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame), and it's interesting to ponder how they would take such a sprawling vision and turn it into a movie. But personally, I'd rather not see it get the Hollywood chop treatment.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book 23: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I'm sure you've all heard of this book by now if you're a Pajiban. It's been mentioned many times on the site. It's got one hell of a title, and it lives up to it.

AHWOSG (yeah, I'm not typing the whole thing repeatedly) is Dave Eggers sprawling memoir that details his young adult life. While he is in college, both of his parents die within 6 months of each other, leaving him and his older brother Bill and older sister Beth to take care of their younger-by-10-years brother, Christopher (Topher for short). Dave ends up chosen as Topher's caretaker, so they move to CA and he attempts to balance his new found role as "parent" (of sorts) with starting a magazine (Might Magazine) with his friends.

That's a basic, nutshell description of the book. But Eggers is not one for simple, linear storytelling. His writing is full of starts and stops, of disconnected and yet overarching ideas about his life, what it means to be family, what it means to DO something with your life, what his parents' deaths meant for him and his family, and so on and so forth. The foreward, intro, Rules & Suggestions, whatever you want to call it, itself is about 30 pages long. Eggers also uses different framing devices such as an interview to tell his story.

The phrase "voice of a generation" has been bandied about in reference to Eggers, and it's not hard to see why. First of all, he talks of a vision of people forming a "lattice" of support, all connected, as "one body," and says things like, "I am bursting with the hopes of a generation, their hopes surge through me, threaten to burst my heartened heart!" and "[Oh], let me be the strong-beating heart that brings blood to everyone!" These grandiose statements about being one with others and wanting to support them, to show them that they are connected, and to show that all their pain and loss was not for naught but for a purpose... well, it's easy to relate to such thoughts. And secondly, Eggers stream of consciousness style of writing sounds like the voice in my own head. He interrupts himself repeatedly, sometimes in mid-thought, sometimes in mid-sentence, and is so sarcastic, bombastic, and honest, I identify with him. I may not have gone through the tragedy he's experienced, but I can empathize with his feelings of fear, of excitement, and of wanting to turn his life into something worthwhile.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book 22: The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier

I am a huge fan of Brockmeier. I read his novel "A Brief History of the Dead" a few years ago, and have been hooked ever since. He's a gifted writer who draws you in with his vivid descriptions and makes you truly care about his characters. His books are the type that you find difficult to put down - you want to stay in his worlds and find out what happens next.

"The Truth About Celia" is one of the most beautiful and sorrowful novels I've ever read. It's also a book within a book - it's a collection of short stories written by a fictional author named Christopher Brooks. Christopher is a successful science fiction author who lives with his wife Janet and 7-year-old daughter Celia. One day, while he is giving a tour of their historical home, Celia, who was playing in their backyard, simply vanishes. Poof. Gone without a sound or trace.

The novel is Christopher's first work since Celia's disappearance. In the 7 years after, he has written several short stories that all revolve around that tragedy. One story recounts the events of that fateful day over and over, as if by doing so Christopher could find a new piece to the puzzle that explains what happened. Another story starts with one character and moves through the town, bouncing from person to person, showing how they have all been affected by Celia's disappearance, and ending in a ceremony being held by the townspeople to honor her memory. There are several pieces of fiction that try to give Celia a happy ending - in one, she has fallen into a different world; in another, she's grown up and is raising a son who wants to become a magician.

The novel is Christopher's way of coping with their loss. It's a horrible tragedy - I can't think of anything worse than simply losing someone. Even when you lose a loved one to death, there is a sense of finality - they've passed on and are at rest. With Celia, Christopher and Janet have no idea if she's dead or alive, if she's being tortured somewhere, if she's scared and missing her family. Christopher in particular has been unable to move on since that day, and has spent his time writing not only about that day but trying to give Celia's story an ending, in order to give himself one as well.

Like I said, the book is absolutely heartbreaking. But it is also one of the most beautifully written novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading, and so I wholly recommend it.

Book 21: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

"Stardust" is the first Gaiman book that I've read, and I enjoyed it. It's a short book, a trifle of a story about a boy searching for his destiny and finding love along the way.

Tristan Thorn is in love, and willing to do anything for the girl. When a star is spotted falling to Earth, he is tasked with the quest of finding the fallen star and bringing it back to his beloved in exchange for her love. With the help of his father, Tristan sets out into the land of Faerie in search of the star. What he does not know is, the star has plans of her own.

It's your typical fairytale journey, with various creatures that Tristan meets along the way, and it's infused with wit and humor. I've yet to see the movie version, but if it stays faithful to the story, then I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

Book 20: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Imagine for a moment that your child has committed a terrible crime. Who is to blame - him, or you, as his parent? What led him to that moment - the way he was raised, or something innate that has been growing inside him over the years? Basically, is it nature or nurture that has led him to be a stone-cold murderer?

That's the question that Eva Khatchadourian has been struggling with for years, since the day her son Kevin walked into his high school gymnasium and killed 9 people, 7 kids and 2 adults. In a serious of letters to her husband, Franklin, Eva recounts not only the massacre but everything that led up to that point, beginning with when she met her husband through conceiving and raising Kevin and her younger daughter Celia.

Eva holds nothing back in her quest to understand what drove Kevin to kill. She discusses feeling ambiguous about being pregnant and even recounts a time when she let her anger take control and left toddler Kevin with a broken arm. Her unflinching introspection is at times difficult to read, but Shriver keeps the story moving. And there is a twist that I figured out after the first few chapters but is nonetheless heartbreaking.

The story doesn't have a tidy resolution - there is no black & white answer for why Kevin did what he did. If you're looking for an answer to the nature vs. nurture debate, you won't find it here. But you will find a realistic, engaging story that's bound to leave you with new questions of your own.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Yesterday, May 29, 2010, we got married! Ceremony went off perfectly, it was a gorgeous day, and the reception was a blast. I'm exhausted but happy. Tomorrow, we're off to Vegas for 10 days! Look for photos (eventually) on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book 19: Strange Brew edited by P.N. Elrod

We're close to the halfway point on the CR, and I'm only closing in on book #20. But I'm not giving up!

Strange Brew is a collection of short stories by some of the bestselling authors of paranormal fiction. There's a story set in the world of True Blood by Charlaine Harris; a Harry Dresden story by Jim Butcher; and Cin Craven story by Jenna Maclaine. I've always been drawn to science fiction, but I haven't really dipped into fantasy/paranormal fiction, so I thought this was a good way to do so while checking out some recommended authors. Overall, the stories revolve around witches, vamps, and werewolfs, with other supernatural elements thrown in. I really enjoyed the Harry Dresden story, and plan on checking out his series.

(short review, I know, but time is short and there are books to read!)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Book 18: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on Earth. At least, that's his assumption. A plague has infected the world's population and turned everyone into vampires. Even the dead have returned to life and seek blood. As the last man, Neville is stalked every night by the undead. He has turned his home into a fortress, keeping himself safe behind boarded up windows and rings of garlic. By day, he leaves his home to hunt and kill the infected.

He follows this routine of hunting and hiding, day after day, for several years, until he questions his reasons for wanting to stay alive in a world full of the undead. Finally, he gives himself a purpose for living. He decides to figure out exactly what caused the vampiric infection and how to cure it. Along the way, he meets a woman, Ruth, who appears to also be alive like him. He brings her back to his house and as they talk about their lives before the plague and discuss his theories on the plague, he grows suspicious and begins to wonder if she is infected and simply hasn't changed yet. So he tests her blood and gets his answer, but it is not the one he wanted, and he never could have imagined what she has in store for him.

I've seen "The Omega Man" and "I Am Legend," two of the four different movies based on this novel. While both movies draw from the story, they both contain significant changes to the details of the book, like what causes the changes and how things end. It was interesting to see the differences, but it seems to me that both adaptations ignored the main theme of the story. In Neville's mind, the infected are monsters, deadly creatures who must be destroyed. But to those who are infected but not fully changed, Neville himself is the monster, killing those who were both undead and those who were alive when infected without bothering to determine the difference. He is the monster, and as such must be destroyed, and his deeds will pass into legend (hence the title).

This is the first of Matheson's work that I've read. A lot of his works have been adapted into movies and tv shows: "What Dreams May Come," "Stir of Echoes," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" from the Twilight Zone. I can see why his stuff's been optioned again and again - he has some fantastic ideas here. However, the fulfillment of said ideas sometimes falls a little flat. And there were interesting flashbacks that went nowhere - what happened to his daughter, Kathy? How close were he and Ben Cortman? What happened when his wife, Virginia, showed up at his door after he'd buried her? Overall, it's an enjoyable read, and a good addition to my apparently end-of-the-world/dystopian themed CR.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book 17: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

"Catching Fire" is the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Spoilers ahead for those who've not read the first book.

Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 after their risky death-by-poisonous berries gambit pays off and they both win the Hunger Games. Things are strained between the two, as Katniss has revealed to Peeta that she doesn't share his feelings as strongly as he does. Katniss finds herself thinking of her friend Gale in a different way, and her relationship with Peeta confuses her.

As the victors of the Games, Peeta and Katniss are to embark on a Victory Tour of the districts and the Capitol. On the eve of the Tour, Katniss gets a surprise visit from President Snow. Snow is less than pleased with the way Katniss thwarted the Capitol's rules and managed to keep both herself and Peeta alive. She also learns that her actions have been viewed as rebellious and have inspired the people in the other districts to attempt their own rebellions. Snow wants her to help him keep the masses from rebelling by playing up the star-crossed lovers story that she and Peeta concocted during the Games, in the hopes of making her seem less like someone who was fighting the Capitol and more like someone driven to extremes by love. This, unfortunately, means one thing: she will have to marry Peeta and give up any hope of a life with Gale.

As it's the 75th anniversary of the Games, this year is also known as a Quarter Quell, in which the rules for the Games are changed to make things more interesting for the viewers. For example, in the 50th anniversary Quell, twice the number of tributes were sent into the Games. This year, the rule seems aimed directly at Katniss: the tributes will be drawn from the existing pool of victors. As Katniss is the only female victor for District 12, that means she's going back into the arena - and this time, she knows the Capitol will do anything it can to ensure that she doesn't make it back.

I devoured this book. I simply could not put it down. Collins does a fantastic job of drawing you in and making you care about these characters. I'm not ashamed to admit I teared up at the scene where Katniss came face to face with Rue's family during the Victory Tour. The way the people of Rue's district honored her was touching.

Lionsgate has reportedly bought the rights to the series, which thrills me. Even better, Collins herself will be adapting the book herself. So here, I'd like to make a plea to Collins and the producers: Please, please, please don't let this turn into Twilight redux! Yes, Katniss is torn between Peeta and Gale, but it runs so much deeper than the vampire-werewolf-numbnuts triangle that Meyers created. Katniss is forced into a relationship with Peeta because she believes it's the only way to protect her mother, Prim, and even Gale - if she does what the president wants, then they will be safe. But, of course, their relationship is complicated and not all for show. She's a beautifully drawn character, complex and confused about what's happening to her and what's the right thing to do not only for herself and her own happiness but for the lives of her friends, family, and even those across Panem who plot to overthrow the Capitol and look to her as the symbol of the growing revolution - she is the Mockingjay (from the pin she wore in the arena).

The third book doesn't come out until August. I haven't looked forward to a release since the final Harry Potter, so it's nice to have something to look forward to... even if I am horribly impatient and want it now!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book 16: One Second After by William R. Forstchen

William R. Forstchen, professor of history at Montreat College, has written many books and articles on military history and technology. In his latest book, he's used his extensive knowledge on the subjects as well as his knowledge of electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) to create a terrifying possible future for our country.

An EMP, according to Wikipedia, is "a burst of electromagnetic radiation that results from an explosion (especially a nuclear explosion) or a suddenly fluctuating magnetic field. The resulting electric and magnetic fields may couple with electrical/electronic systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges." Forstchen believes that EMPs pose a very real threat to the United States - one of our enemies could detonate a large nuclear weapon above the US and the resulting wave could potentially knock out all electrical devices and bring our country to a complete halt, throwing us back into the Dark Ages. We're not talking a minor power outage - these EMPs if powerful enough could do damage that takes months or years to fix.

In the novel, John Matherson, a professor of history at Montreat College in NC (like the author), is preparing for his daughter Jennifer's birthday when they experience a power outage. Only, this isn't like any normal power outage. Days pass and there's no sign of any electricity. Cars have completely stopped working, coming to dead stops in the middle of the streets. People begin to panic, raiding grocery stores and fighting at the pharmacy to get their prescription medications. John, a friend of the local law enforcement and a respected citizen due to his position at the college, his military background, and his vast knowledge of history, drops in to see the mayor and the chief of police. There's been no communication with any other cities, including Asheville, the nearest big town. John has a theory as to what's happening - he believes an EMP has destroyed all the electrical devices in the city, and in other cities as well, judging by the way the town has become cutoff from the outside world.

From there, the town begins to unravel. Martial law is established. Just try to imagine what life is like without electricity - no food can be processed and sold, and the few farms in town cannot sustain a population of 1000s. No medications can be made and distributed, so those who are dependent on insulin or beta blockers die within weeks of their last doses. No phones or computers can connect them to the outside world, so they have no idea what's happening - and there's no hope of help coming, because what they face is occuring in other cities around the country.

For those who survive the disease, hunger, and cold, a new threat looms. Refugees who pass through the town looking for help bring word of a gang called the Posse who have looted and ransacked their way through NC and are headed toward them. This gang has weapons and vehicles, and they burn, ransack, and kill their way through every city, taking all food and anything of value they find and leaving nothing behind. Matherson and the head of security at the college, also a military man, decide there's only one thing to be done. They organize a militia, mostly consisting of scared kids from the college, to stand and fight and protect their town from the Posse.

The book has a foreword by Newt Gingrich and an afterward by Captain Bill Sanders, U.S. Navy. Forstchen clearly believes that by writing this book, he's warning the public of a looming threat that could have devastating effects for our country. The book does its job - it's horrifying to imagine the things that he describes coming true - people being executed in the street for looting; cannibalism running rampant; our country dividing itself as brother fights brother for survival. But... there are no answers to be found in the book. There are no suggestions as to what we can do to protect ourselves from this threat. Even in his afterward, Sanders offers nothing more than the statement that "the solution 'is feasible and well within [our] means and resources to accomplish.'"

The Pollyanna in me likes to think that, should there be a major catastrophic attack on the US, we wouldn't devolve so quickly. But, given the reports of looting and insanity that occurred after the recent earthquakes in Chile, well... I suppose it's not so farfetched. And I did find myself thinking, "Oh my god, I need to stockpile food and water and medicine and I need a gun NOW." But as serious as this threat may be, I'm not 100% sold that it will happen, because even if a country fired nuclear weapons at us, wouldn't our overseas forces do the same to them? Does any country hate us enough to destroy themselves completely in the process? I truly hope we never have to find out.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book 15: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I love a good dystopian novel. Love, love, love. I remember the first I ever read - "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley. That was the first time I remember thinking, What if it's NOT gonna be all sunshine & ponies when I grow up? (I was 11.)

"The Hunger Games" is an excellent recent dystopian novel that I couldn't put down. Seriously, I found myself actually being sad when I had to stop reading to go to bed or go to work. The United States is now Panem, a collection of Districts controlled by the Capitol, a remote, wealthy city nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Once, the Districts rebelled and fought the Capitol, which struck back and completely obliterated the 13th District. Now, in remembrance of the battle, and to remind the Districts who's in control, there is an annual competition held called the Hunger Games. Every District has a lottery to choose two "tributes," or competitors, to send to an arena for a battle to the death (a la "Battle Royale"); the winner's District receives gifts of necessities such as oil and grain - things most Districts sorely lack. These tributes, by the way, are ages 12-18. The Hunger Games are broadcast nationwide, and the tributes get sponsors to help them by gifting them with things like food and medicine during the games. But in the end, only one Tribute can win.

Katniss Everdeen is a resident of District 12, a mining district located in Appalachia. She's a huntress; she's learned to hunt, trap, and kill in order to keep her mother and younger sister, Primrose, from starving to death. Theirs is a poor district, where most die young of hunger, and a winner in the Hunger Games would mean life for all. On the eve of the latest Hunger Games lottery, Katniss is hoping that her name won't be drawn, so that she can remain with her family and continue to provide for them. She gets her wish; unfortunately, she is safe because the name drawn for the girl tribute is Primrose.

Without any hesitation or thought, Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place. The boy tribute selected is Peeta Mellark, a baker's son who is in Katniss's year at school. Peeta and Katniss are not close but share a small connection: once, when Katniss was on the verge of death from starvation, Peeta saved her by throwing her two burnt loaves that he intentionally dropped in the fire, resulting in a beating from his mother. Despite her gratitude for the gesture, Katniss is wary of growing close to Peeta - after all, only one Tribute will survive the Games.

Katniss and Peeta are whisked off to the Capitol, where an old winning tribute from their district, Haymitch, will be their mentor as they prepare for the games. Katniss is highly skilled with a bow and arrow, and her time spent in the woods learning different plants and how to string up traps and stalk prey could help her, depending on what arena they end up in. With the help of her mentor and a stylist team chosen to give her an image that will pull in sponsors during the games, Katniss becomes a favored tribute. Meanwhile, Peeta plays up the angle of a lovelorn tribute, stating his feelings for Katniss, but she is unsure of whether he's being honest or if it's a plan he and Haymitch drew up to make him more sympathetic to viewers.

The Games begin, and Katniss quickly finds herself on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of those who would kill her. And then, at a critical point in the Games, an announcement is made that changes the rules, and Katniss discovers that her feelings for Peeta aren't as clear as she thought.

I could say so much about this book, and just in recapping I almost did. But honestly, if you want to know what happens, I recommend you read the book yourself. The story doesn't telegraph what's coming next; and as it unfolds from the lottery drawing to the training to the Games, you catch glimpses of Panem and descriptions of what life is like in the Districts. I can't wait to read the second book, which I'm hoping has more backstory on what happened to create Panem.

Book 14: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

The more I get into this series, the more I see its shortcomings. Obviously you could argue that it's a YA series and therefore one shouldn't expect much from it; but one could also argue that the Harry Potter series was YA and rose above that status.

Riordan's world is still richly imagined, but the stories zip along so quickly that there's little time for the characters to show any sort of development. And things are glossed over so quickly without much emotional involvement that it's rather surprising. For example, in this book, the third in the series, Annabeth, one of the main characters, goes missing and is presumed dead by some. And there's no real mourning or anything - she's just gone and the only one who seems to care is Percy. Then there's a new character who is introduced, quickly becomes part of the crew and then just as quickly disappears.

In this book, Kronos's comeback is furthered by his minion Luke and a new player, "the General," who was Kronos's right hand man back when the Titans clashed with the Gods. Percy, Annabeth, Thalia and Grover find a new set of Half-Bloods and bring them back to camp, only to run into trouble and end up rescued by Artemis and her Hunters (immortal girls who have sworn off boys and pledged their lives to the Goddess). Artemis finds out that Kronos plans on unleashing some ancient monster and takes off in pursuit, while her Hunters head to Camp Half-Blood. Soon, they discover that the Goddess has been captured by the General, and our heroes set out to save her and defeat the General.

I'm not sure if the faults of the story lie with the fact that it's a teenage boy narrating or with Riordan's writing skill. Again (and I know I keep doing this), if you think about the Potter series, that was all about a teenage boy and yet there was real development and emotional content to the story. Regardless of how I feel the series has dropped in quality, I'll be sticking with it to see how things turn out.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book 13: Next by Michael Crichton

Sigh. I'm starting to fall behind in my reading. I'm gonna make excuses - working two jobs, planning a wedding, trying to get a third job, blah blah blah.


"Next" isn't a straightforward biotechno thriller like most of Crichton's work. Instead, it's a series of interweaving plotlines that almost reminds one of a Robert Altman movie. The overarching theme of the novel would be genetic experimentation/discoveries and all the moral/ethical/financial issues that they raise.

There are a ton of characters in the book, but a few major plotlines involve most of them. Rick Diehl is the founder of BioGen, a biotech research lab that has its hands in a few major developments such as patenting a "maturity" gene that causes drug addicts to straighten up & fly right and maintaining a line of cells that could potentially help to cure cancer. Those cells, however, came from a former leukemia patient named Frank Burnet, who did not know that his cells were being sold by his physician to BioGen. Burnet sues the company and loses; the judge rules that BioGen rightfully owns his cells. Meanwhile, Jack Watson, an investor with ties to BioGen, arranges for his ne'er do well nephew to sabotage the cell line at the lab in order to help Burnet... and also to help Watson be able to buy BioGen at a cheap price once their prize project goes belly up. However, this sabotage leads to Burnet's daughter Alex and grandson Jamie being chased by a bounty hunter. You see, they have the same cells as Frank, and since those cells were owned by BioGen, they were considered stolen property and the bounty hunter was called in to "reclaim" them.

There's also a story about Henry Kendall, a hapless scientist whose tinkering with genetic sequence insertion comes back to haunt him... in the form of a half-human, half-chimp son named Dave. Kendall's family takes Dave in, but his integration into human society comes with its own set of problems. Then there's Gerard, a smart but also smartass talking parrot given to quoting movies and songs. Gerard is another transgenic animal; human genes were inserted into his own as a baby bird and as a result, he thinks he's human and acts that way to his owner. Gerard's journey takes him from his home in France all the way to California, where the Burnet and Kendall storylines combine in a showdown with the bounty hunter.

There are a lot of other story lines that I'm leaving out, but those are the overarching plot lines. This book was very different from Crichton's usual fare. What stood out most to me was his attempts at humor and parody in the novel. Some of the characters were little more than stereotypes, and some were clearly meant just for entertainment, and not to move anything along. For example, there's a bit about a talking orangutan whose vocabulary is limited to French curse words. And a lot of Gerard's story is played for laughs. I'm not saying Crichton's other works are very dry and technical; it was just apparent here that he was going for laughs.

Woven between chapters were fake articles from magazines and newspapers talking about current events in science: evolutionary theories, discussions on gene patenting, a very sly commentary piece about artists jumping on the genetics bandwagon by using gene manipulation as artwork (like a dog that had the spines of a porcupine, if I recall correctly... shouldn't have taken my book back to the library so soon!).

I think Crichton meant not only to entertain with this book but to point out the dangers inherent in a new frontier of science. Plunging into a new field of exploration means making the rules up as we go, and Crichton asks, are we headed in the right direction? Should universities patent genes - can you own the right to something that is found in 100% of the population? Who really owns your cells once they leave your body - are they still yours, or are they "waste" and up for grabs? What about funding - what's more important to investors, safe products that garner effective results or the bottom line? According to Wikipedia, Crichton felt so strongly about these issues that he even gave a speech to Congressional staff members about the need to revise the laws that affect genetic research.

The book is supposedly being adapted into a movie. It'll be interesting to see how many stories get cut completely. Hopefully, it will be more "Nashville" than "Crash."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Book 12: Percy Jackson Book Two: The Sea of Monsters

I'm really liking this series. I know it's a Young Adult series, but why should that stop me from enjoying it?

In Book Two, Percy discovers that he has a half-brother named Tyson who is a Cyclops. He brings his brother to Camp Half-Blood, which is being attacked on a regular basis by monsters that have broken through the mystical barrier that protects the land. Meanwhile, Percy's satyr friend Grover is in trouble and reaching out to him through his dreams.

Clarisse, daughter of Ares, is tasked with the quest of finding the Golden Fleece, a magical fleece that can heal anything, including the tree Thalia (daughter of Zeus who was turned into a pine as she lay dying on the border of the camp) which reinforces the camp's mystical border. It turns out that Grover is being held by the Cyclops who is in possession of the Fleece, so Percy, Annabeth (daugher of Athena and Percy's closest friend at camp) and Tyson find themselves also looking for the Fleece and hoping to rescue Grover at the same time.

Along the way, Percy and his friends run into Luke, son of Hermes, who defected from the camp at the end of the first book. Luke has fallen under the spell of Kronos, King of the Titans and father of Zeus, who has been biding his time in the hopes of returning to power. Percy knows that Luke wants the Fleece as well... but he never imagines what he plans on using it for, and the book ends with a surprise that I didn't see coming.

I know I keep gushing, but I really like this series. The plot unfolds quickly in each book, and the action doesn't let up as the story moves along. And I love trying to guess the identity of the mythological creatures and characters that Percy encounters (most are in disguise at first).

I also know that I shouldn't compare every YA series to Harry Potter, but, well, it's damn hard not to. Both series depict their main characters as struggling with identity and fate versus free will. Harry and Percy are both the subject of major prophecies, and they also have to deal with figuring out who they are versus who everyone else thinks they are - they have reputations that precede them (Harry being the Boy Who Lived, Percy being the Son of Poseidon, one of the "Big Three" Gods, the other two being Zeus and Hades).

I will definitely be looking for the third book next time I hit the library.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book 11: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Book One: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

At first glance, this series would appear to be yet another fish-out-of-water series trying to capitalize on Harry Potter mania. A young boy discovers he's not just a normal kid, but is in fact a half-blood, the son of a Greek god and a mortal woman. However, by setting his characters in a world where the Olympians are no myth, Rick Riordan has created a fully-fleshed out universe filled with adventure and heroic tales - this is no cookie-cutter copy of J.K. Rowling's masterpiece.

I have always had a fondness for Greek mythology. As a child, I would check "D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths" out of the library over and over again... until my mother finally bought it for me for Christmas one year. It remains one of my favorite childhood books. The stories spoke to me in a way that few other books did. So when I heard about this series, I immediately was intrigued. And I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first book.

Percy Jackson is a troubled kid who has bounced from school to school, never lasting more than a year in one place. Odd things have a way of happening to him. He's barely surviving his first year at Yancy Academy when he's attacked by one of his teachers, who reveals herself to be a Fury, one of the God Hades's minions from the Underworld. Shortly after this attack, Percy's world is turned upside-down as he is rushed to Camp Half-Blood, where it is revealed that he is the son of the Sea God, Poseidon, and that the camp is the gathering place for all the half-blood children of the Gods, or "heroes."

While he adjusts to this news, Percy finds himself at the center of a brewing battle between his father, Poseidon, and Zeus and Hades. Someone has stolen Zeus's master lightning bolt, and all signs point to Poseidon... with Percy being the suspected thief working for his father. But Percy and his friends suspect Hades is responsible, seeing as how he's been sending his minions to kill Percy. So Percy is tasked with the quest of finding the bolt and clearing his name while preventing World War III as the Gods take sides between themselves and prepare for battle.

It comes as no surprise that this series is being developed for the big screen. It's a swiftly-paced adventure, a true hero's tale as he faces monsters and fights against evil in the name of saving his friends, his family, and even all of Western civilization from total destruction. I, for one, will be lining up to see the movie when it comes out, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

Book 10: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

I never read the entire Chronicles of Narnia as a kid. I started the series and read "The Magician's Nephew" and "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," and then I guess I lost interest. So I thought the CR would be a great reason to pick it up again.

"The Horse and His Boy" is technically the fifth book in the seven book series, according to Wikipedia, but if you go by the timeline of the series, it's considered the third book. Shasta is an adopted boy raised as a slave by a fisherman in the province of Calormen. One night, Shasta overhears his "father" planning to sell him to a nobleman. Rather than allow this to happen, he decides to run away to the North. He talks to himself as he plots, and the nobleman's horse overhears him and answers him. It turns out he's a talking horse named Bree who was kidnapped (horsenapped?) from his home in Narnia and forced to live as a war horse for the Tarkaan nobleman. He longs to return to Narnia, so he and Shasta make a run for it. Along the way, they meet up with Aravis, a Tarkeena (noblewoman) also on the run with her own talking horse. She's avoiding an arranged marriage; her horse, Hwin, is hoping to return to her home in Narnia like Bree.

The novel is a quick read, the tale of Shasta & Aravis's adventures as they travel north. It's also rather boring. I don't know if that's due to the fact that it's written for much younger readers than I, or if I just don't care for Lewis's style of writing. Although I did enjoy some of his short stories, but they were aimed at more mature readers. Either way, I can't say I really want to finish the series. Maybe if I can't think of anything else to read...

As a kid, I never saw the whole Aslan/Jesus Christ comparison. But now, reading the series as an adult, I can't believe I missed it. Holy crap, is it obvious.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book 9: Prey by Michael Crichton

Well, coming off that last book, this one was a friggin' breath of fresh air. Michael Crichton knew how to tell a story. This novel was a quick, interesting read that I couldn't put down 'til I'd finished it.

Jack Forman is a stay-at-home dad in Silicon Valley. A former programmer who specialized in writing agent-based programs that mimic "biological processes" (computer agents are programmed to think like animals - swarm behavior, or predator behavior), he's been dealing with his recent firing by taking over household duties. His wife, Julia, is a bigwig with Xymos Technology, a company working on developing "molecular manufacturing" aka nanotechnology. Lately, she's been distant and argumentative, and Jack fears she's having an affair with a coworker out in the Nevada desert at the company's fabrication building.

One night, after displaying some odd behavior, Julia is injured in a car accident and rushed to the hospital. The same night, Jack receives a call from his old company, looking to rehire him. It turns out they've contracted Jack's PREDPREY program to Xymos, but they're having trouble with it and need his expert help. This program basically commands a computer agent (or other agents) to mimic the behavior of a predator in order to accomplish its objective or goal. He flies out to the desert the next day and there discovers the truth - the company has succeeded in its goal to create nanotechnology, but their creation has gotten away from them. And thanks to Jack's program, it's acting like a predator, and Jack and his coworkers have become the prey.

I love books like this. Take an interesting scientific/technological topic, add some intrigue and danger, and mix well. I could easily see this being adapted for the big screen one day.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Book 8: The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

I never thought I'd say this, but this is one book that could be improved with a dumbed-down movie adaptation.

Let me explain.

I'm a fan of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's work. I remember discovering his novels at age 12 and getting lost in the worlds of "Rendezvous with Rama" and "Childhood's End." So when I saw this book at the library, I naturally picked it up. It's coauthored by Stephen Baxter, who is apparently a well-known name to science fiction readers (I'd never heard of him, but I'm always behind the times so that's no surprise).

The basic premise of the novel is what captured my interest. Hiram Patterson, the CEO of OurWorld, a major tech company in the year 2035, has discovered a way to create and use wormholes to instantly transmit information. Hiram is a greedy, manipulative genius who is mainly concerned with creating and keeping his vast empire. He's breeding his two sons, David and Bobby, to help him achieve his goals: David is a scientist who works on the wormhole technology, and Bobby is meant to one day take Hiram's place as the head of the company. It isn't long before the wormhole technicians discover that they can use the wormholes to transmit light i.e. to look at anything they want anywhere in the world. And from this development, they learn that they can look not just any WHERE but any WHEN - they're able to open wormholes that look back in time.

Imagine being able to watch Lincoln give his Gettysburg Address. Or to see for yourself just what life was like for Jesus of Nazareth. The whole world changes as they discover once and for all just how history REALLY happened. The "Worm Cams" also completely eradicate the idea of privacy - anyone can look at anyone else at any time they choose, without being seen (the wormholes are too small to be seen by the naked eye).

So the novel is full of interesting ideas. Unfortunately, there are too many ideas, and many are half-developed or abandoned along the way. I felt like the book was more Baxter than Clarke, just from having read a lot of Clarke's stuff before. I mean, Clarke was in his 80's when the book was published in 2000... how much could he really have collaborated?

The characters are poorly developed, the dialogue is stiff and mostly exposition, and the description of the science behind the wormholes is dense and difficult to follow. I managed to completely avoid taking any physics classes in high school or college (stuck to the biological sciences), and I never once regretted that decision... until I started reading this book. Entire pages of explanations blurred beneath my vision. I understand that quantum physics is a popular topic in some science fiction circles, but how much is necessary for the reader to understand in order to enjoy the story? I just need to know the wormholes are plausible; I don't need to know exactly how they work.

The ending of the novel introduces several interesting new developments in the wormhole technology and a new discovery in human history, but both feel rushed and almost out of place, like they were jammed in at the last minute. But why? Why throw interesting ideas in at the end and then not expand on them? And I haven't even gotten to the Wormwood plot yet. Scientists discover that a gigantic asteroid called the Wormwood is headed for Earth and will cause an extinction level event in the next 500 years. We're reminded of this Wormwood over and over and over throughout the book - humanity has become apathetic, people decide "well, it's all gonna end, so fuck it, let's do whatever we want," no one can figure out how to stop it - and then at the very end of the book, it's given literally a three sentence summation - and it's a casual aside that a character says.

I feel like there's so much I haven't mentioned, including a major character that serves as love interest for Bobby. Which brings me back to the idea that this could stand to be adapted for the big screen. Why do I say that? Because this novel could use a lot of simplification. I don't necessarily mean they need to dumb down the science (although that would help people like me out), I mean they need to cut some storylines and focus in on the good stuff.

But maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Next thing you know, they'll be Baynis all over this, and THEN what good would it be?