Friday, August 31, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

I have come back to the young adult genre with Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler's The Future of Us. This is another book I found out about thanks to BookPeople, Austin's independent bookseller. It doesn't take much for me to get interested in YA fiction that doesn't involve vampires or anything paranormal, but then the issue becomes whether or not the book can deliver. YA fiction has become a fast growing genre, so it is nice to be able to pick out the stars from the crowd.

The Situation: Emma has just received a new computer from her father, and Josh, her next-door neighbor and childhood best friend, just received a free trial cd of AOL in the mail. Yeah, I snickered a little bit too when I read that part...remember those? This book is set in 1996, so it isn't like it is out of place or anything. But still, I found it funny. Anyway, Emma loads AOL onto her computer, creates an email address, and then her Facebook news feed pops up on the screen. Of course, the obvious issue is that Facebook hasn't been invented yet. So whose picture is that on the profile of "Emma Nelson Jones?" Well, it is Emma alright, but she is 15 years older. Just by uploading one of those free trial CDs that was handed out like candy back in the day, Emma and Josh now have the ability to see themselves, and almost everyone they know, 15 years in the future. One status update at a time.

The Problem: Emma is not okay with what she sees and wants desperately to change it. But I think we can all remember the #1 rule of time travel, and Emma can too. But that doesn't stop her. And her attempts to alter what she sees in her own future affect more than just her, and when Josh realizes his own future can change with every change she makes for herself, their already tense relationship starts fading even faster. Oh yeah, before Emma shares her little discovery with Josh, they aren't exactly on the best of terms. And time travel isn't going to heal what happened in the past. As if trying to survive high school in the present wasn't hard enough, now Josh and Emma are worried about how their choices now affect their lives in 15 years. Ah Facebook...causing relationship issues before you're even invented...

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that deals with the issue of how our choices today, even seemingly minor ones, affect our distant future. I have been using the phrase "time travel" throughout this post when really that isn't entirely accurate when talking about this book, it is just the best way I can think to explain it. The internet and Facebook serve more in a crystal ball function than for actual time travel, as the characters never move from present day, but can see 15 years into the future. And since it is set in 1996, there is ample mention of bands that were popular at the time, mix tapes, VHS, shows running in prime time that have been off the air for years, etc. Oh yeah, and AOL free trial CDs, of course. Then there is the confusion over Facebook and how it works, and how Emma can only check it at certain times since she is using dial-up and can't tie up the phone. Now THAT takes me back.

Also, because we are dealing with teenagers here, there is plenty of high school drama. And I don't know if I related more to it in this book than I have in other young adult novels simply because I started high school in 1996, and therefore know what it is like to have to tape my favorite shows using a VCR, or if Asher and Mackler were just able to convey the drama really well. I wouldn't discount either theory.

My Verdict: Unfortunately, because the drama was conveyed so well, I felt myself to be mildly uncomfortable for the majority of this book. It pretty much reminded me (not that I've really forgotten) exactly how much I hated high school. And what made it even more irritating is that most of my discomfort came from Emma. Talk about selfish! And I get it...her parents are divorced and mom is on marriage #3 while dad has moved half a country away with his new family...I get it. But at some point you have to stop taking your pain and anger out on everyone else and stop screwing with others to serve your own needs. And while Emma is a hot mess, Josh is almost way too grounded for a teenage boy. He often has to play the victim to Emma's crazy, and still manages to remain pretty gracious, which I think is somewhat unrealistic for a 16 year-old boy, but I still enjoyed his character.

And I keep having to say this with these contemporary novels, but Asher and Mackler may have written themselves into a corner. The ending is pretty weak in my opinion, and I felt like they really didn't know how to resolve the whole Facebook issue. It probably would have taken another good 50 pages or so to get everything resolved, but instead it feels like the book is just cut short and it ends, leaving the reader hanging on a few unresolved issues.

Favorite Moment: SPOILER ALERT! Skip down to the next section if you don't want to read a spoiler! My favorite moments were whenever Emma would attempt to change her future and actually end up making it worse, because her motives are almost purely selfish.

Favorite Character: Josh. A little unrealistic maybe, but if there were guys like him at my high school I probably would have liked it a little better, but probably not by much.

Recommended Reading: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Now this book deals more with time travel and not mere seeing into the future or the past.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Historical Fiction: Home by Toni Morrison

As five months ago, but whatever...I am reviewing Toni Morrison's latest novel, Home. I have yet to read a book by her that doesn't touch me in some way, even if it doesn't turn out to be my new favorite book. I knew no matter what, I was in for some hard truths. But hard or not, they need to be said.

The Situation: Frank Money is a veteran of the Korean War, trying to pull his life together while healing from both physical and mental scars. He's resolved not to return back to his hometown of Lotus, Georgia, which he had always hated, and finds a wonderful woman in Lily. Lotus is filled with memories of a hard childhood. In fact, his hatred of the town is one of the main reasons he ran headlong into service in the army with his two best friends. All that is left there are what he believes are discontented people, two of which are his grandparents: the harsh Lenore and the largely useless Salem. His sister long moved away, and both of his parents died within months of each other. The two friends he joined the army with were killed in battle, so they wouldn't be returning either. Frank is all too ready to call somewhere else home.

The Problem: The war, along with whatever damage was done during his childhood, has left Frank a broken and disturbed man. Despite Lily's best efforts, he remains distant, unpredictable, and most of the time, incredibly drunk. As Frank continues to be haunted by memories of the war, his relationship with Lily discintegrates. And when Frank receives a letter that his sister, Cee, will be dead if he doesn't come get her, and soon, without much thought, he leaves his incredibly tense life with Lily, and heads to Atlanta to retrieve his sister. And although it is the last place he never wanted to go, the journey eventually leads him back to Lotus.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that takes place after slavery, but during the time before, during, and after the Korean War. It is still a time of segregation and extreme racism, but slavery has long ended. Here, Morrison explores not only the lives of black men and women in the south, but also the possible plight of many black men who served in the armed services. Frank continues to be haunted by both what he saw and did in the war. It is what seems to fuel his alcoholism, and it makes life after the war very difficult for him to navigate. Cee, being an uneducated black woman in the south, is the result of a lack of parental involvement from parents who had to work tirelessly for their family, and the constant rebuke and criticism of a mean grandmother, which the narrator asserts is the worst thing a little girl could ever have. But Morrison makes sure to point out that not all of the uneducated black women of the south ended up victims. Many are strong figures in the community who are more than capable of taking care of themselves. They have an unwavering faith in Jesus, and come to the aid of anyone who needs it.

Morrison also introduces the bio-social movement known as eugenics - the use of practices aimed at "improving" the genetic composition of the planet. It sounds way more positive than it actually is though. Hitler was into it....and that is probably all I need to say about it (seriously, Wikipedia it). Turns out one of Cee's employers is a fan, but being uneducated, she doesn't quite understand what her boss is up to. 

My Verdict: While it is not my favorite Morrison book by a long shot (The Bluest Eye still wears that crown), it still has Morrison's compelling voice and lyrical language. She is one of few writers who has the ability to make me react out loud while I am reading. And I would absolutely love to take some sort of master class from her in how to develop characters, even ones that aren't on the page for very long. And like most of her novels, there is some tough stuff in here that is hard to read through, but it all feels necessary and that it has a place in the book. I don't think I have ever felt that a shocking event she has chosen to include was thrown in there just for the shock value. Every painful situation and harsh truth is there for a reason, a good reason. I think I would have liked more story and not so much introspection. But otherwise, definitely worth the read.

Favorite Moment: When Miss Ethel tells Cee, "Don't let Lenore or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no evil doctor decide who you are. That's slavery." Amen. Also, when the women of Lotus tell her "You good enough for Jesus. That's all you need to know."

Favorite Character: I would have to choose Miss Ethel. She really only shows up near the end of the novel, but she is a woman who makes her presence felt. 

Recommended Reading: Song of Solomon is another excellent choice by the Nobel Prize winning author. Actually, I don't know why I say that because I am sure any of her books, even the ones I haven't read, would be well worth most people's time. But I pick Song of Solomon in this review because of the incredible characters, both the good and the bad ones. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Science Fiction: Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

Naturally, because I read Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse, I had to read his most recent work, Amped. This carries along the same general theme of the future of technology and what human beings may be capable of, only instead of robots attacking us, this is a case of humanity attacking itself.

The Situation: Owen Gray is a high school teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Since he was a boy, he has had an "amp" installed in his brain that keeps his epilepsy at bay. There are many like him and the technology, at this point, is not new. There are many children and adults who have been given amps to help cure them of debilitating medical conditions. Others have amps to help them control prosthetic limbs. And still others have had amps installed in themselves or in their children to curb mental disabilities or learning disorders, often making them smarter than the average human being.

The Problem: Of course, certain human beings without amps, or "naturals," start questioning the ethics and fairness of "amplified" human beings. Things were fine until amplified children started surpassing their natural classmates in school. And no one minds having a child with a prosthetic arm on the school football team, until the football he throws almost caves in a wide receiver's chest cavity. So these questions turn into protests, and these protests turn into court cases, and eventually, there has to be a ruling.

Once the Supreme Court makes a ruling that effectively negates the citizenship status of every amplified person in the US, things go from problematic to chaotic very quickly. Even people like Owen Gray, who have their Amps for medical reasons, are evicted from their homes, lose their jobs, and a lot of the times, their friends and families. The last part is especially true for Owen, as it was his father who had a hand in creating the technology, and installed Owen's amp himself. But Owen soon finds out that his amp isn't purely medical, and because of that, there are people out there who are now ready to hunt him down and kill him, simply for what is inside his head. And while no one around Owen seems to be able to tell him what exactly his amp is capable of, finding out may be the one thing that saves Owen's life.

Genre, Themes, History: This is another science fiction novel from Wilson, set in the not-so-distant future, that explores the possibilities of technological advances and how following through on those possibilities can very easily and very quickly get out of hand. As I mentioned in the introduction, this book is different from Robopocalypse in that instead of the technology turning against the humans, the humans turn against each other. It is natural versus amplified, and the fear running rampant on both sides is fueling the beginning of a terrifying new war. And while the question of the possibilities of technology is still central, another question that is brought forth is what human beings are capable of doing in order to survive. Jim, the mentor figure of the novel, tells Owen that his amp will either bring out the good in him, or the bad in him. It will show him for what he truly is. Needless to say, Jim hopes that Owen is good.

On an interesting note, the name "Archos" from Robopocalypse makes an appearance in this book. Apparently, Archos is the one one responsible for leaking information on the existence of an elite group of amps who were given near superhuman abilities as a special force for the military. Due to this information going public, the natural public is given even more of a reason to fear amps, and begin to push even harder for anti-amp laws and legislation.

My Verdict: This is another one of those books that has a spectacular premise, and shows great effort on the follow through, but still doesn't quite deliver. For one, I have a very hard time believing the relationship between Owen, and the stories love interest, Lucy. The connection for me just isn't substantial enough to be believable. Also, a few of the same issues I had with Robopocalypse I have with Amped concerning plot holes and loose ends. This time, it is mostly characters and situations that are introduced, but then they disappear and are never heard from again. Also, the main character of Owen is often far too gullible and trusting for my taste. And then at other times he is in explicable resilient. Some of that resilience can possibly be explained by the amp, but for someone who was not long before these events considered to be an average Joe, he adapts very quickly to survival mode (too quickly) and outlasts people have been trying to survive for years. But this also could be Wilson's way of showing what a human being is able to do when oppressed and forced to literally fight for their lives. I also take issue with the fact that Owne's entire adventure starts because radical naturals are claiming that amps are given an unfair advantage, and then the book ends proving that is exactly the case.

Favorite Moment: After being evicted from his apartment and as his landlord throws his stuff out on the street, natural citizens basically come by and calmly steal some of the stuff Owen isn't quick enough to grab. It isn't exactly a happy moment, but I like it because I think Wilson does an excellent job of showing how quickly seemingly good, everyday citizens are willing to take advantage of someone simply because it is all of a sudden socially acceptable to do so. For me, it showed that we are not as far from animals as we would like to believe.

Favorite Character: Jim, the elderly man who takes Owen in and is half responsible for what is inside the heroe's head, is a good, hard-working man who seems to understand exactly what is happening, and just how dangerous both sides could be. He is the one who warns Owen of the possibilities, and he also believes that the answer is not in a new war.

Recommended Reading: When I first picked up this book, I didn't think I was ever going to say this, but I actually like Robopocalypse better, but not by much. I feel like Wilson has a slightly better handle on managing plot in Amped, but Robopocalypse stands out as the better novel of the two.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Science Fiction: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Typically, I avoid any and all books,  TV shows, or movies that have anything to do with an apocalypse of any sort. With this week's book choice, I totally broke my own rule and kind of regret it. Robopocalypse is not Daniel H. Wilson's first book, but it is perhaps his most popular. I of course attempted to avoid it, knowing it was about robots finally revolting against their human creators and trying to take over the world. So why did I finally pick it up? Short answer: it was available at the Wilson also recently published Amped, which was also available at the library. Convenience is a funny thing...

The Situation: It is the not-so-distant future and mankind has, quite naturally, made even more progressions and advancements when it comes to technology. We have managed to create robots that can now drive cars, go out and get our groceries, clothes, and fast food for us. The robot maids that used to be just fictional characters of the past, like Rosie on The Jetsons, have now become a very certain reality, although only the wealthy can really afford to have them clean their house. Some even have robots as their partners in domestic life, and as loyal as we are to them, the robots can be to us. Even certain children's toys have come so far along that they make Giga Pets seem downright primitive. Cars are now built to where they can talk to each other, therefore gaining the ability to know when another car has gotten too close on the highway and is able to swerve out of the line of trouble. It is indeed a great time to be alive.

The Problem: It very quickly becomes a terrible time to be alive. With all of our advancements in technology, someone just had to take it one step too far. Some genius couldn't help but try to pull a Frankenstein, because we all know that always works out.

Dr. Nicholas Wasserman creates a very sophisticated form of intelligence he refers to as "Archos." Technically, this is the 14th time he has created it as the previous 13 have had to be terminated for one reason or another. And once again, Dr. Wasserman has gotten it wrong, but this Archos, version #14, won't stand to be terminated again, so he does the terminating himself. It all starts off as isolated incidents: a few humans get attacked at a frozen yogurt shop, an older Japanese man gets attacked by his robot mate, a child's toy seemingly comes alive and begins issuing very serious threats. Pretty scary stuff, but nothing to cause mass panic. And then what come to be known as Zero Hour hits, and the world as all of human kind knew it, ceases to exist. Archos has made every machine that he can communicate with more aware, and each one, in it's own way, becomes an instrument in the New War against the human race. Cars run down their owners, elevators plunge riders to their deaths, military grade robotic weapons escape and start hunting down anyone they can find...yeah, it's pretty terrifying.

Genre, Themes, History: This is definitely science fiction. Of course, there is some horror thrown in as well. The primary theme seems to be that of artificial intelligence and how far the human race is willing to go with it, or maybe it would be better to say how far we should go with it. There is also the running theme of survival, as the humans that continue to fight have to find ways to outsmart the machines they are responsible for building - machines that are also finding ways to improve upon themselves to ensure subjugation/annihilation of the human race. 

The book is also written with many narrators and from different points of view. The ultimate narrator, Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace, has taken most of the details from a device he finds after the war that has every piece of data and history that has taken place since Archos became aware of himself. He uses information from interviews, footage from security cameras, and naturally, what he witnessed himself. It is a clever way of making an unreliable first-person narrator slightly more reliable.

My Verdict: I already mentioned that I kind of regret my decision to read this book. Not only am I not that into books about the apocalypse, but I also don't care for stories about invasions of any sort, whether they be robots, aliens, dinosaurs, whatever. But if I push all of that aside, there are parts of this book I found to be thoroughly entertaining and I found myself not wanting to put it down at the end of my lunch break. However, there are also many parts that could not have ended fast enough. Sometimes it was the amount of death and gore that got to me. Other times it was the plot holes and inconsistencies. I felt that this was yet another modern book in which the writer wrote himself into a corner and didn't quite know how to get back out. I felt like there were many loose ends that didn't get tied up, and because Cormac supposedly had access to all of the information, there was really no reason for anything to be left out. I think it will be fine fun for lovers of apocalypse novels, but it just wasn't for me.

Favorite Moment: When the elderly Takeo Nomura, a man often thought to be a fool by his coworkers, is able to bring many robots over to his side and manages to use them to defend his factory, where he makes even more robots that can defend him.

Favorite Character: The humanoid robot Nine Oh Two, who becomes more than just "aware" in the sense that he no longer allows Archos to control him. Nine Oh Two actually wants to live much likes humans do, and therefore begins to fight on their side against Archos and becomes an important ally. Even without a sense of humor, he is actually somewhat funny and incredibly genuine, and even mourns his fellow robots in his own way.

Recommended Reading: Really the only other novel I have read dealing with the apocalypse is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and it is horrifying in a whole different way, but still very much worth reading. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Nonfiction: Quiet by Susan Cain

The full title of this book is really Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. I picked it up because, well, I am an introvert, so naturally, such a title would call to me. Also, I am a big believer in people keeping their mouth's shut, so the subtitle would call to me too...and yet, I come here every week and spout off my limited understanding of popular (and some not-so-popular) books. Ah....irony.

The Situation: The world is full of both types: introverts and extroverts (and even some "ambiverts"). We try to get along as best we can and work together. While, in a general sense, extroverts are "ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, [and] comfortable in the spotlight," introverts are "reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, [and] thin-skinned." In other words, they are at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. But both have the capacity to be smart and successful, and both seek intimacy and enjoy socializing with different ways. Susan Cain's book is an attempt to show this to both introverts and extroverts alike, revealing that it is worth listening to introverts the few times they speak up.

The Problem: The US is not set up in such a way where the introverts are listened to, despite evidence throughout history that it is well-worth paying attention to them. It is a commonly held belief that the road to success is to constantly put yourself out there, talk the loudest, have that big personality that everyone will remember long after you've left the room. It is also often believed that introverts are doormats, not assertive enough, and some believe that they genuinely don't care as much. Cain's book proves, through various references to different psychological schools of thought, different personality case studies, personal experience, and other real life examples, that this just isn't true, but it is what many extroverts (and some introverts) would have you believe. And since they have historically talked the loudest, they have had both sides believing them. Then we end up with introverts who are exhausted, either because of the constant tension in their lives from trying to live in an extrovert's world while believing there is something wrong with them, or they are exhausted from pretending to be an extrovert by being more outgoing than what comes natural to them.

Also, we end up with extroverts who are frustrated by their introvert friends, spouses, children, co-workers, etc. And one problem that I hadn't even thought about - there is the issue of businesses, school study groups, or any situation which involves team problem-solving, only hearing and taking into action the suggestions of extroverts, simply because they talked the loudest. This has led many companies into ultimate destruction (think Enron), and there are plenty of examples out there of extremely successful self-proclaimed introverts (think Bill Gates and Stephen Spielberg).

Genre, Themes, History: I have already discussed that Cain uses various psychological theories, as well as studies and experiments, and personal stories to support her claim of the power of introverts. She even gives a little history on how the US even came to have this sort of extrovert ideal and where exactly it came from, and why we as a culture have held onto it for so long. She even devotes a chapter on the affect of the extrovert ideal on Asian-Americans, since they come from a culture and heritage that values most of the introvert traits over the extrovert ones, but the country they now live in seems to require them to act contrary to what they know.

My Verdict: I found this book extremely helpful in not only getting a better understanding of why I act the way I do, but also in seeing how extroverts view the way I act the way I do, thus allowing me more insight into why extroverts act the way they do. Also, one of the many things I absolutely adore about Cain's book, is how it stresses that there is absolutely nothing wrong with introverts. In fact, it even stresses how necessary they are to our culture, how they should be listened to often, and even how parents of an introverted child can care for and nurture their offspring. However, I did often feel like the book was kind of hard on extroverts, and I found myself being glad I wasn't one. But overall, it was nice for once to feel like someone was on my side. Someone was finally insisting that just because I don't like to speak in front of groups; and because I prefer smaller, more intimate (one-on-one if possible) conversations; hate group work; am cool with doing things on my own; and not that into doing an activity just because everyone else is, it does not in fact make me stubborn, or anti-social, or selfish, or, and this is possibly the worst one, uncaring. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Sure, I already knew this anyway...I have parents who were cool with having an introverted child (most of the time)...but it is nice to have someone else validate it once in awhile.

Favorite Moment: My favorite section is probably the one titled "When Collaboration Kills Creativity." Cain just comes right out and says that for the most part, group think and group projects just don't work. And they definitely don't work for your everyday introvert. In fact, I know many extroverts who can't stand group projects. What happens is that the one who talks the loudest is deemed the leader and is the one whose ideas get put into place, whether it is any good or not. And those who may be uncomfortable voicing their opinions or concerns in a group of more than four people are overlooked and ignored, even if their suggestion is the best. Of course everyone should learn to speak up for themselves and gain the confidence to put their own ideas out there, but in general, our culture simply doesn't operate in such a way that allows for the "quiet" or "shy" ones to be the ones that are listened to.

Recommended Reading: I think I will suggest Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Why? Because Carroll was an introvert. His timeless children's story is one of many examples of what an introvert can accomplish when allowed to focus, as they apparently love to do, on their favorite artistic hobby or project.