Friday, January 31, 2014

Science Fiction: The Humans by Matt Haig

Matt Haig's The Humans was nominated for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Award for best science fiction. And even though it didn't win, I was intrigued by the summary and decided to go for it. And it is unusual for me to be drawn to a story that involves an alien invasion. But instead of the aliens coming down and simply attempting to take over or obliterate life on earth, these aliens are attempting to protect humankind...sort of.

The Situation: Andrew Martin has died. He found out something no human being should ever know, so he had to be dealt with. And anyone he told about his discovery must be dealt with as well. That is why an alien form, who is never given a name, most likely because they don't have them (or even a need for them) on his home planet, has taken over Andrew's body. The real Andrew Martin is a fairly well-known mathematician who has made a discovery that would advance human existence by leaps and bounds. But the alien beings, who have already advanced to the point where they can never die or decay unless they are killed, know that this discovery would cause the humans to advance too quickly, ultimately causing massive harm to themselves and to other species in the universe, should they ever come into contact with any. The mission is simple: get rid if any evidence of the mathematical breakthrough, and do the same to anyone else who may have known about it, even Andrew's wife and child.

The Problem: Apparently Andrew Martin, the real one, was a bit of a jerk. And because the alien being wasn't given a thorough profile of the man whose body he would be inhabiting, he finds this out slowly but surely through interactions with his wife and son. Any small act of kindness is questioned, as is any indication that Andrew might actually care about anyone else. This really isn't so much an issue for the mission as it is an annoyance. The real problems begin when alien Andrew begins to find reasons to not be repelled by his surroundings, other humans, and even their food. He also discovers poetry, music, and the feeling of companionship that comes from having a loyal dog in the house. Once Andrew begins to find beauty in the things he is meant to destroy, and begins saving them instead of killing them, things start to take a turn, and he begins to learn, with all of its ups and downs, what it may really mean to be human.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that doesn't take place in the distant future or on some dystopian version of earth, or on another planet. But it does involve aliens, space travel, and advanced technology that can heal at a rapid speed, hypnotize, and of course, as it is part of Andrew's mission, kill. The book is both an indictment of human behavior, mostly about how we keep choosing to make ourselves miserable in various ways, and gathered evidence of many reasons why human life in earth is worth living, and ultimately, probably better than a bland controlled existence with absolutely no drama. In the acknowledgements, Haig admitted that the idea for the story came from a time when he suffered from a panic disorder, and for him, being a human being at this time was just as stressful and strange for him as it is for the unnamed alien. So while it all boils down to a human author writing about what an alien may think and feel after having arrived on our planet for the first time, it may actually be an accurate much as it can be. Ultimately, The Humans is about being human, for an entity that has always been the farthest thing from it.

My Verdict: It's a bit weird, because there are moments when the fake Andrew is absolutely infuriating. He relentlessly points out the flaws of human beings and their existence and to why the way of life on his home planet is far superior. But then there are other times when he happens upon something he unexpectedly likes, and his description of it makes the reader feel for him again. And while I can't quite say I wanted him to complete his mission, I did want him to become used to his surroundings and not get found out, and ultimately find happiness using Andrew's body, hopefully doing more good with it than the original Andrew was able to. Haig is able to accomplish the always difficult goal and having a reader care for an entity that, in the beginning, only wanted to cause harm.

Favorite Moment: When alien Andrew heals the dog, Newton, or his near blindness and arthritis, therefore making a very loyal friend. This is only the beginning of the alien finding out what makes human life worth it.

Favorite Character: It's actually a bit hard to choose. I like alien Andrew, eventually. But I also like his son Gulliver eventually. His wife Isobel I liked from the beginning, so there is that. But really, there aren't many downright despicable people in the novel. Even the alien race is doing what they think should be done to preserve the universe as a whole. 

Recommended Reading: As I said before, I don't normally pick up books involving aliens. The only other book I have read recently involving species from another planet is Ender's Game, and that doesn't feel right as a recommendation. And with that option taken out, I can say with absolute certainty that I got nothing. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is my first Jhumpa Lahiri novel, although I had always heard good things, and the same was true for her latest, The Lowland. The book was also nominated for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Award for best historical fiction, although it didn't win. Still, my hopes were high when I was able to pick this book up from the library.

The Situation: Subhash and Udayan were born only 15 months apart in 1940s India, and are often mistaken for one another. Naturally, they grow up to be close companions, but they are incredibly different. Although Subhash is the older brother, he is the more careful one - the rule follower. Udayan is much more daring and adventurous, and they both know it. Even so, the two remain fairly close even after they begin attending different colleges to study different things. Only when Udayan becomes heavily involved in the Naxalite movement - a rebellion committed to ending the growing inequality and poverty in India - and when Subhash moves to Rhode Island to continue his studies, do the brothers really begin to grow apart. But even as they live separate lives across continents and oceans, they still manage to stay in touched, just barely.

The Problem: Turns out that political rebellion and revolution are messy and dangerous. Especially as what Udayan is involved in starts to include acts of violence that endangers people's lives, including his own. He knows there is potential that danger could end up spreading to his new wife and his parents, whom they live with. Inevitably, something happens that causes Subhash to return home to India for the first time since he left, and he feels the need to attempt to pick up the pieces and heal the family from the tragedy. But it just isn't that simple. What Udayan has done will have ripple effects for decades and across generations. It will separate parents from their child, end a loveless marriage, cause a mother to abandon her daughter, and give that daughter a sense of abandonment that no amount of therapy could completely heal.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that starts in the late 1940s and ends in present day. It begins with the birth of Subhash and Udayan and follows them as they grow up and become adults with their own families. Throughout the book, the story is told from different points of view, but always by a third-person omniscient narrator. Most of the time the story is told from Subhash's point of view, but the reader also gets the story from the viewpoint of Gauri, Udayan's wife; Bela, their daughter; or even Subhash and Udayan's mother, Bijoli. The overall theme could easily be what it means to be a family, but this is also a love story, a lesson in the political history of India, a cautionary tale about the cost of revolution, an exploration of motherhood, and even what it means to live the scholarly life. In short, it's complex. 

My Verdict: This is a great novel that tells a pretty complicated story in such a way that makes it seem simple and straightforward...until you try to describe it to someone else. It isn't just about two brothers or just about rebellion or just a love story or just about life in America after having grown up somewhere else. It is about all of these things, and then also about many others as well. And no matter which setting the chapter happens to be placed in, Lahiri describes it beautifully, even when she is pointing out the things the characters don't like about it. The story is easy to follow, even as it shifts back and forth in time and between countries, and even when a character is doing something you may or may not agree with, it is easy to still relate to them and empathize and see where they are coming from.

Favorite Moment: When Subhash stands up to his mother regarding some of the customs she insists on keeping despite how demeaning and degrading they are. 

Favorite Character: It is easy to pick Subhash, as he disrupts his own life and inconveniences himself to save others when he really doesn't have to. But I also like Bela, as she is able to make her own way in her life despite serious personal setbacks.

Recommended Reading: As I said, this is the first novel by Lahiri that I have read, so I can't really recommend another one that she has written. So instead I will recommend And the Mountains Echoed by Khlaed Hosseini, although his characters are from Afghanistan, not India. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Last Savanna by Mike Bond

As part of the blog tour for Mike Bond's latest novel, I was sent a copy of The Last Savanna for review. Just a month ago I covered Bond's Saving Paradise, a thriller set in Hawaii that followed a man as he attempted to uncover the truth behind a reporter's death, while keeping himself alive in the process. Now, in The Last Savanna, we follow a man as he hunts down poachers in modern day Africa.

The Situation: Ian MacAdam reluctantly agrees to help a friend track ivory poachers who are killing the last of Africa's elephants. To complicate matters, his wife has finally decided to leave him and return to London, something she has been wanting to do for a long time now, and he knows it. MacAdam also wonders about his own place on the dark continent, but knows he could never leave it as he loves it too much. So he sets out with his friend Nehemiah as they seek to save yet another African species that is in danger of being wiped out completely.

The Problem: As if his wife leaving him and the inherent danger that he knows comes with hunting poachers wasn't enough, MacAdam also finds out that the poachers have kidnapped Rebecca, a young archeologist with whom MacAdam once had a love affair. Now, MacAdam not only has Africa's elephants to save, but what could potentially have been the love of his life as well. And as his team dwindles in numbers and the poachers head towards borders that would make things even more difficult than they already are, MacAdam realizes time is just one of the many things that is no longer on his side.

Genre, Themes, History: Like Bond's other books, The Last Savanna has been categorized as an existential thriller. First and foremost seems to be the theme of survival. The elephants are trying to survive, as are the poachers, and Mike's team, not to mention the other animals in the African wilderness, which includes lions, hyenas, camels, etc. Pretty much every character spends a great amount of time incredibly thirsty, searching for water, while simultaneously looking over their shoulder for potential threats. Bond begins the book by showing how practically every being in the African wilderness is being hunted by something bigger and stronger, and naturally, the trail ends with human beings. The book also switches points of view between MacAdam, Rebecca, and a Somali poacher named Warwar. The story is based Bond's own experiences pursuing elephant poachers, and the very real dangers that come with such a job.

My Verdict: I said the same thing concerning Bond's Saving Paradise, but I'm going to say it again here anyway: this book is just not for me. The book is incredibly well-written and Bond describes the African setting beautifully, but the actual plot behind the story is just not something I would normally be drawn to. The characters, while well-rounded enough, just weren't relatable to me, and I had a hard time caring about what happened to them, mostly because none of them were great people. I found myself actually kind of hoping they would all meet their own demise. It felt like there was no hero, although I am fairly certain that is what MacAdam was supposed to be. And something about the native African being the ruthless poacher, killer, and kidnapper just didn't sit right with me.

Favorite Moment: When MacAdam decided to spare the lives of poachers he managed to capture, even if it meant they would just be executed by the government a few days later.

Favorite Character: As I said, I didn't care for any of them, so I couldn't pick a favorite. 

Recommended Reading: I actually liked Bond's Saving Paradise much better. Maybe it was the setting, or the fact that the story was more of a mystery and thriller as opposed to just a thriller, but I recommend it if The Last Savanna is your kind of book.

Interested in winning an Adventure/Survival Kit as part of The Last Savanna blog tour? Email with the title of the first book to appear in the blog (hint: the post is dated January 13, 2012) and you'll have a chance to win. The Adventure/Survival Kit includes a copy of The Last Savannah by Mike Bond, camping items, water purification tablets, energy bars, and much more. Good luck! 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Horror Fiction: The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

After reading The Croning over a year ago, I decided I would give Laird Barron another try once his new collection of short stories came out. Finally, I have gotten around to picking up The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us All, which contains nine short stories, all of which are pretty terrifying. I am fairly certain that if it was all just one continuous novel, I probably would not have made it all of the way thorough.

Genre, Themes, History: While each of these horror stories is completely different, with their own setting and characters and plot, there are themes that run through many of them, if not all of them. Almost every story involves someone, or an entire group of people, getting involved in something that they know nothing about, but it ultimately results in their undoing, or the undoing of someone close to them. In The Redfield Girls, death and tragedy seem to occur as the result of some "innocent" contact with a Ouija board. And in Jaws of Saturn, a man fights for his girlfriend against a hypnotist who is much more than he appears to be, only to possibly lose himself in the process. Almost every story also includes some sort of human sacrifice, most of which are unwilling. These aren't the usual ghost stories or simple murder mysteries that turn out to have nothing to do with the supernatural. In every story there is something incredibly evil and incredibly powerful running the show, whether the characters wish to acknowledge it or not. And many times, even those that willingly follow along aren't spared the worst of it. In many ways the stories read like the ones you'd here sitting around the campfire, especially since many of them take place out in the woods, far from civilization. Suffice it so say, none of them are for the faint at heart.

My Verdict: Although I usually avoid short story collections, I did like The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All much more than I did The Croning. Maybe it was the variety provided by the different stories, but despite the gore and death and destruction, I was eager to see how each story ended, though it was a guarantee it wouldn't be a happy ending, and I was eager to see what the next story would bring to the table. I did feel that some of the stories were wrapped up a little too neatly and/or quickly, such as Blackwood's Baby and The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven, but even so, they are stories worth checking out.

Must Read: My personal favorite in the collection was The Siphon. It was complicated and intriguing enough that it was fun to try to keep up with, but not so much so that you want to skip it and move on to the next story.

Okay to Miss: I didn't care much for Vastation, which seemed like less of an actual story and more of a history of some nonhuman entity that has been around about as long as the universe itself.

Recommended Reading: If you enjoy this collection of Baird's short stories, then I recommend The Croning. Also, if the mystery element of the stories is more appealing to you than maybe the horror and the presence of evil, then I recommend Marisha Pessl's Night Film, which is a murder investigation, but with some incredibly dark and sinister elements behind it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Classic Fiction: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

For me, which book I decide to start off with for the new year is somewhat of a big deal. Last year I went with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as it felt appropriate for the first blog post of 2013. This time, I have decided to go with Harper Lee's great classic To Kill A Mockingbird. I have yet to meet anyone who has ever read this book and just hated it, and even after reading just the first few chapters it becomes clear why it has remained a favorite for so long.

The Situation: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) and her older brother Jeremy (Jem) live with their father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama in 1930s America. While Atticus works as a lawyer, and their black maid Calpurnia takes care of the house, Scout and Jem do what kids are known to do: they make up ridiculous games; go on adventures, some of which are actually kind of dangerous; they fight; they get dirty, and they tell tales involving some of the mysteries surrounding their small town. One such mystery involves Arthur "Boo" Radley, a shut-in that the children have never seen. The children know to leave him alone, but when a young boy named Dill starts visiting Maycomb every summer, the children begin plotting ways to see Boo Radley, despite instructions from Atticus to leave him alone. But aside from their misadventures involving the Radley house, the children live their somewhat simple lives in a small Alabama town.

The Problem: As Scout will learn later, life in Maycomb, or anywhere really, isn't all that simple, and Atticus knows it. In fact, Atticus knows a lot of stuff that Scout and Jem just don't realize. Atticus also knows what is to come after he is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a local black man accused of raping a white woman. Even though Atticus was assigned to the case and didn't volunteer for it, the adults have taken to calling him a disgrace, and their children are repeating these ideas to his children, causing Scout to get into her fair share of fights. Soon, the Finch children forget about getting Boo Radley out of his house, and begin to worry for their father's safety, and the outcome of his case.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. It is a coming of age novel that follows Scout, the narrator, as she navigates life as a child growing up in this small southern town. Most of the time she is with her older brother Jem, and every summer they spend with their friend Dill when he visits. The beginning of the novel focuses mostly on the legend of Boo Radley and how he ended up the way he is. The children treat his house almost as if it were haunted, even though Boo Radley is just as alive as they are, and they see Boo's father, Mr. Nathan Radley, come and go from the house everyday. Still, the children run instead of walk past it, and will only go past the front gate and into the yard if dared to do so. As the novel moves on, the Tom Robinson case slowly comes to the forefront of the story. As Scout becomes more aware of the particulars of the case, so does the reader, and eventually Boo Radley is almost completely forgotten about. Due to Atticus being busy as a lawyer, and Scout and Jem not having a mother, the two of them often have to work out on their own how they feel about things and what they believe is right. And while they often assume Atticus has no clue what they're up to and won't understand, he proves time and time again that he knows and understands way more than they would have ever believed.

For me, probably the most amazing fact about this novel is that it is the only one Harper Lee ever wrote. For some reason I find that crazy to think about, and yet, it is true.

My Verdict: There are a few books out there that some have considered to be the Great American Novel. Often included are Moby Dick and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If I were allowed to cast a vote, I would pick To Kill A Mockingbird. It is one of the few books out there that almost everyone has to read at some point during their education that I actually believe people should be forced to read. Oftentimes a child narrator can become annoying or grating, and while Scout is most definitely a child in many ways, she offers that insight into situations and people that no adult could ever provide, but must come from someone that few people would think to look to for guidance. Something about her open frankness and inquisitive nature will often cause the reader to shake their head while chuckling at the same time. And Atticus is just the man to be her father and always look out for her, especially when her older brother Jem isn't up to the responsibility. It is a book about race relations in early 20th century America, as well as a book about innocence, family, the court system, and small town living. Also it is a book about what exactly makes someone crazy and a shame to society. 

Favorite Moment: When Scout and Jem go with Calpurnia to her black church and are amazed at how they worship.

Favorite Character: First place goes to Atticus Finch. He is a true man, and is doing his best to raise two young children in a small town while also working as a lawyer. He does everything he can to remain beyond reproach and always acts as a gentleman, especially when it is difficult to do so. He gets a place in my heart right next to Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. A very close second place goes to Arthur "Boo" Radley, but if I told you why it would kind of ruin the book.

Recommended Reading: It is incredibly difficult to find a book that can follow this up, but I will go ahead and pick Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This time the narrator is a college-aged black man and the novel follows him as he journeys from the south up to the streets of Harlem. It is a very different book from Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, so adjust your expectations accordingly.