Friday, September 25, 2015

Science Fiction: Armada by Ernest Cline

After reading Ernest Cline's first book, Ready Player One, back in 2011, I was so ready for him to write a second novel. Ready Player One read like a video game. The descriptions were incredible, the plot was fascinating, and the action was intense. So imagine my excitement when Armada finally became available to readers in July of this year. Many people were anticipating the release of this book and expected that same brand of almost intoxicating adventure we got from its predecessor.

The Situation: Zack Lightman is attempting to ride out the remainder of his senior year by keeping his anger down and staying out of trouble. He lives a fairly normal existence with his mom in Beaverton, Oregon, playing his favorite video games with his two best friends and working at a struggling video game store in an almost defunct mall. His boss, Ray, is almost like a father-figure to him as his own dad died tragically in an explosion at his job when Zack was just a baby. Zack became almost obsessed with his father, despite his lack of memory of him, and was able to go through the old boxes his mom kept in the attack to get a sense of what his dad was like. While Zack seemed to inherit his love of video games and science fiction, he fears he may have also gotten his paranoid delusions and affinity for conspiracy theories.

The Problem: Turns out that Xavier Lightman, Zack's father, may not have been so paranoid after all. As Zack his staring outside of his classroom window, he spots what he recognizes as an enemy spacecraft from one of his favorite video games, Armada. He brushes it off and tells no one, but then no one can deny it when an aircraft from Earth Defense Alliance shows up to take Zack away. It seems that as one of the top ten players of Armada in the world, Zack is now one of the main people able to defend the planet against the potential alien invaders. Turns out that not only was his father right, but all of those years Zack was playing video games has prepared him for the fight of his life. In the next few hours Zack will meet other top players and learn things about close friends and family that all at once make him angry, happy, and afraid. And the last thing he wants is for his home planet to be destroyed now that he finally seems to have a direction.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction book that probably could also fall into the young adult category, as the narrator and primary focal point is teenager Zack Lightman. As the number six Armada player in the world, it is fair to say that Zack loves video games. He loves defending Earth against the Sobrukai  aliens, as well as taking on other players in one-on-one fights. Even when things turn out to be all too real with the actual alien invasion, Zack uses the same techniques he would use at home to keep his cool and focus on the mission at home. The novel is full of science fiction references, both from the past and the present, as it is soon realized that the government has been using movies, TV shows, and video games as a way to prepare Earth for an alien invasion since the 1960s. Well-known scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking even make a brief appearance. The book calls into question just how much the government is keeping from us, especially when it calls us to action, as well as what type of alien species we could encounter as we continue to explore outer space. Everything works out okay in movies like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it's situations like the ones in Independence Day and War of the Worlds that the government decides to prepare for.

My Verdict: I knew better than to expect this book to recreate the experience I had with Ready Player One. But just because it wasn't Ready Player One, it didn't mean it still couldn't be an awesome book. The beginning is a little rough, mostly because of the extensive explanations of the video games Zack enjoys, as well as the detailed back story about his father. Once you get past that, the action really picks up, as well as the reveals. The book becomes a page-turner as Zack is whisked off to Moon Base Alpha and the fighting begins. Then there is a certain point in the book where the narrative pacing seems to change, and all of a sudden things get rushed. Characters are being pushed aside; details are left out. And then, it is all over. Without the attention to detail and storytelling that was in the other parts of the book, Cline seemingly ends it just to end it. It is almost like he just got tired of writing and decided to wrap everything up as quickly as possible. It is probably one of the most disappointing endings that I have encountered all year. Thankfully, the journey was quite enjoyable. But if you're all about the destination, then you're going to be incredibly sad.

Favorite Moment: When Whoadie, the number seven player in the world quotes both the Bible and Shakespeare without blinking an eye.

Favorite Character: This is kind of hard as many characters are introduced, but a lot of them either (*spoiler alert*) die in battle, or they just kind of end up fazed out by the end of the novel. Even so, I suppose I will pick both Whoadie and Debbie. Debbie is a single mom who happens to be the number nine player in the world. The two women are among the top ten players in the world and have earned their spot next to the boys in helping defend Earth from an invasion.

Recommended Reading: I would certainly recommend Ready Player One over Armada. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card would also be a good follow up.     

Friday, September 18, 2015

Science Fiction: The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I am excited to cover the fourth installment of The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. The Long Utopia continues the story of Joshua Valiente, Sally Linsay, and of course, Lobsang. Other characters that have come along across the previous three books also make their appearance, as well as some new faces that have their own place in the ongoing discovery about the Long Earth and what access to potentially millions of other worlds will do for, or to, humanity.

The Situation: It is now the middle of the 21st century, not that many years since the events of The Long Mars. Sally has once again lost track of her father, and has continued stepping across the Long Earth on her own. Joshua has also decided to go it alone, even as his son grows up into a young man without him. And for once, Lobsang is trying his best not to be Lobsang, even allowing himself to die, although not completely of course. The are multiple copies of himself. So under the name of George Abraham, he and Agnes adopt a child and decide to settle in a pioneering community called New Springfield, a place that Sally picked out for them, on an Earth over a million worlds away from the one you and I know. Here they pretend to be any other small family deciding to step out into the Long Earth and try their hand at farming and building a simple life together.

The Problem: The world of West 1,217,756 isn't quite like its neighbors. Many of he worlds have some odd quirk about them, while others are simply referred to as "jokers" and are best to be avoided if at all possible. But for the most part, West 1,217,756 appears much like any other Earth. However, Agnes is having a difficult time sleeping, feeling as if the days are almost too short in New Springfield. Not wanting to alarm Lobsang, or George, and cause him to go back to his old ways, she conducts her own crude experiments that confirm her fears. Plus, there is a strange presence one of the children has discovered: a bizarre species of metal beetle-like creatures that have an entire underground network beneath one of the abandoned houses. The creatures seem nice enough, and don't appear to be threatened or threatening. But once Lobsang becomes aware of them, he enlists the help of Joshua to find out what exactly is going on, and what these beetles are up to. It becomes clear that not only do they have something to do with the shortening of the days, but Sally may have known all about it when she chose this world as George and Agnes' new home.

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned, this is the fourth in what is to be a five-book science fiction series. Even with the sad passing of Pratchett earlier this year, Baxter will be able to finish out the series, which fortunately only has one more book to go before its conclusion. An ongoing theme across the entire The Long Earth series has been one of exploration and even colonization. In The Long Utopia, people are continuing to settle onto other Earths, especially now that the Datum, the original, is nearly uninhabitable after a catastrophic eruption at Yellowstone. There are even different types of settlers. Some move out into the Long Earth and settle permanently. While others, mostly of the younger generation, shun the idea of farming and working the land, and instead move across the Long Earth from season to season, living off of whatever Earth they come to as they go. And then there are those like Joshua and Sally who prefer to mostly explore alone, for better or for worse. This is also the first book to go deeper into not only Joshua's mysterious family history, but the history of all natural steppers.

My Verdict: This is the first book in The Long Earth series that made me think that maybe five books won't be enough. I usually avoid picking up a series as I mostly don't have the patience. But knowing that there were only going to be five books, and that each one wasn't going to be all that long, I decided to try it and stick with it. With everything that happens in The Long Utopia, and all of the time that has to be skipped in order to get to certain events, it maybe would have been beneficial to even stretch this series to seven books. And it isn't just the time jumping. There are also characters that are introduced and will seemingly be a focal point, at least for this novel. But then they are hastily pushed to the background as there just isn't any time to spend on them because there are other plot points to get to. Sometimes things felt rushed, and sometimes the amount of detail and characterization was just right. But by the end, I did wonder about certain characters that had disappeared over 20 chapters ago. I'll have to wait for the fifth book to see if few loose ends will be tied up, or just cut off completely. Other than that, it was another interesting story about the potential possibilities that would come with having an endless amount of worlds to discover. And this time it wasn't so much about humanity going out, as it was about something else possibly closing in.

Favorite Moment: When the incredibly intelligent, and incredibly condescending, members of The Next are outsmarted and rejected by someone they attempt to recruit. 

Favorite Character: The reincarnation of Agnes is someone I wouldn't mind being neighbors with in a far off settlement in the Long Earth. She may be older, but she has seen a lot, and will take none of Lobsang's nonsense, which is exactly the type of person he needs around.

Recommended Reading: While I naturally recommend reading all previous books of The Long Earth series (The Long Earth, The Long War, and The Long Mars), parts of this book also reminded me a bit of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card and the ongoing fear of a battle with the buggers.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Of all of the books I have read so far this year, Go Set a Watchman was probably the most widely anticipated. And being that the author is none other than Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, it also has the most interesting well as the most controversy. Some bought the book believing it to be a sequel (because that is initially what the public was told), when really it is more like Lee's first draft of her enduring classic. But even knowing this, I bought the book anyway just to see for myself what it was like.

The Situation: Jean Louise Finch has returned home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit. She now lives in New York City and periodically makes the trip back down south to visit her father Atticus, her aunt Alexandra, and her sometimes/maybe boyfriend, Henry. Now twenty-six years old, Jean Louise has, for the most part, dropped her childhood nickname of "Scout," but she still often goes back to the memories of when she and her brother Jem would play in the blazing heat with their friend Dill. That was back when both Dill and Jem were still around, before Atticus had rheumatoid arthritis, and before Maycomb knew anything about the NAACP.

The Problem: Jean Louise not only remembers the countless childhood hours she spent playing, but also everything Atticus taught her about equality among men. Now that she has returned home, it seems to her that the people she loved and trusted, including Atticus, have forgotten this lesson and abandoned the morality he was so careful to instill in her. She doesn't want to believe it at first, and becomes angrier than angry when she finally does. In true "Scout" fashion, she refuses to let this new revelation completely crush her, and comes out swinging, even if it means she's aiming at her own father. Does she pack up and go back to New York, leaving Maycomb and her family behind for forever? Or does she continue to call Maycomb home, accepting that all people are human, and that she will simply no longer be in step with the people who raised her.

Genre, Themes, History: I would call this historical fiction, but since it was written in the 1950s, much closer to the time of its setting, I went ahead and gave it the label of "contemporary" fiction. As I mentioned before, this isn't so much a sequel to the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird as it was its initial first draft. And being that it was a draft, it really wasn't ever ready for publication. There are some faint signs of Lee's style, mostly in Jean Louise's memories of her childhood and teenage years. But for the most part, this book reads like a first the author is onto something but isn't quite there yet. And then there is the whole Atticus-is-now-an-old-racist thing. If this were in fact a sequel, this would break many reader's hearts, mine included. The Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird is my second favorite character in all of literature (Jean Valjean from Les Miserables will probably always be first). So it is his jarring transformation into the Atticus that is presented in Go Set a Watchman that makes it very easy for me to disassociate this new novel from the classic. But I will say this: when it comes to a general theme, the book does make a good point about the moment children realize their parents, mentors, pastors, or whoever they put up on a pedestal, is only just another human being. That initial realization is always devastating, and poor Jean Louise had a harder time of it I think because it comes to her a little later in life than it does for most people. And as awful as that moment can be, it is also necessary, and not impossible to recover from.

My Verdict: I will gladly disavow people of the notion that Go Set a Watchman is a sequel, and not only because of Atticus. The writing in general is just not up to the To Kill a Mockingbird standard.  At times it is hard to follow because the narrative just doesn't flow all that well in spots. Also, much of the dialogue, particularly the longer speeches and rants, doesn't fit well together. Or certain conversations go on for a little too long, especially for such a short book. I would be hesitant to recommend this book to any lover of To Kill a Mockingbird. On the one hand, a reader can see where the classic first started. But on the other hand, being that it is written by Harper Lee, expectations will be high, therefore leading to inevitable disappointment. And if you adore Atticus as I do, then you'll have to deal with an unfortunate and kind of upsetting new version of him.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Jean Louise tells Henry in plain language that she won't marry him, and why.

Favorite Character: I almost have to pick Jean Louise since she is the only likable primary character in the whole book, and even she will get on your nerves.

Recommended Reading: To Kill a Mockingbird. No explanation or qualifiers needed.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Historical Fiction: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell

I know that picking up any book set in 1950s America is going to deal at least a little bit with the racial tensions of the time. Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell stares that tension in the face and crafts a whole story about it. The novel confronts pre-Civil Rights America and gives a fictionalized, but honest, account of what black people went through in the south, especially in the early days of boycotting buses and trying to vote.

The Situation: As a general rule, Vida isn't too fond of white people. But given what happened to her, her once prominent father, and the son she lost, she doesn't have much reason to be. And while she may work for Miss Hazel, she has her own reasons for taking the job as her maid, none of which have anything to do with the woman's well-being or her son. It is Vida's job to make sure Hazel doesn't start drinking again, especially if she's going to drive. Hazel's husband, Floyd, may be a good provider and a loving father, but he is ill-equipped to comfort his wife through the seemingly endless grief of losing her youngest son. Both women are mourning the same kind of loss, a loss that no mother ever wants to have. But they both believe the other one to be proud, hard-headed, and mean, until one day they are both able to come to an understanding, and see that what they have in common is more important than what they don't.

The Problem: In 1950s Mississippi, life isn't easy for black people, whether they work in the fields, in the house, or preach from their own pulpit. For Vida, things could easily be much worse should the sheriff decide to harass either her or her father, again. And when the Senator's daughter goes missing, Sheriff Billy Dean must find someone to pin the crime on in order to keep the pressure off of himself. Vida knows the sheriff is hiding something, but as a black woman in Delphi, Mississippi with a father to look after and a brother who could be caught at any moment selling moonshine, there isn't much she can do. And befriending Hazel doesn't offer much protection due to her own reputation in the small town. But with everything against them, the unlikely pair manage to get together with other black maids in the area and stir up trouble for anyone who would want to keep them powerless and scared.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 1950s Mississippi. Slavery is over, but segregation and discrimination are still very much part of life for black people, especially the ones that live in the deep south. When Vida first starts working for Hazel, a woman named Rosa Parks makes headlines as she refuses to sit in the back of a bus and make room for a white person. Vida and other black maids in Delphi take a note from "Rosie," as they start calling her, and decide they want to make headlines of their own. Vida may not have ever found herself amongst such a group, or even in the job at Hazel's house, had it not been for what happened to her years ago at the hands of the sheriff. Now bent on revenge, for her, her son, and her father, Vida is determined to ruin that man's life and show him for what he is. Hazel deals with her grief a little differently, taking to the bottle and causing fear on the roads when she gets behind the wheel. Vida and Hazel are two women each experiencing loss in different ways. One black and poor, the other white and privileged, each have their own way of dealing with the past, and still manage to become unlikely friends. Hazel may experience injustice, but it is different from what Vida is put through. Odell tells a story of a black woman, with no power, and a white woman, with very little power of her own, in a town and time when white men have all of the influence and can get away with pretty much anything. He takes from the real historical accounts of the black women being the ones to make the first move when it comes to bringing about change in segregated America.

My Verdict: I always hesitate before picking up any book that deals with either slavery or Civil Rights. On the one hand, as a black person, it is easy to get tired of reading about it. But on the other hand, as a reader, I always like a good story, even if some parts are difficult to get through. There is plenty is Odell's story to make me wince, but nothing that made we want to stop and not continue. Life for black people in Odell's Delphi, Mississippi is far from easy. Sometimes it is barely even tolerable, but the novel isn't punishing about it, and still manages to be honest and up front about what the south was like in the 1950s. Also, it is a really interesting story. I always enjoy stories where the women stand up for themselves and make change happen, even if it is because they are tired of waiting for someone else to do it. There are moments where some of the characterization didn't quite work for me, but other than that, I enjoyed the book and the characters it introduced.

Favorite Moment: When Miss Hazel realizes that the sheriff doesn't think as highly of her as she clearly does of him.

Favorite Character: Vida's father, Levi Snow, was once a prominent preacher before tragedy struck at the hands of the sheriff. But although he has been reduced to working in people's yards and has become someone more to be pitied than revered, he has held onto his faith and is still someone many people look up to. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Supreme's at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. It is a different type of story that follows three black women who became friends in the 1960s and who still remain close to this day, despite marriage, children, death, tragedy, addiction, and even scandal.