Friday, July 21, 2017

Science Fiction: Grond: The Raven High by Yuri Hamaganov

As part of a blog tour hosted by Reading Addiction Blog Tours, I agreed to read and review Grond: The Raven High by Yuri Hamaganov. The book promises to be the first in a series, exploring a world in the not too distant future where Earth's resources have run dry, feelings about and towards androids are tenuous, and we must find alternate methods of providing for the most basic of human needs in order to survive.

The Situation: In the year 2080, Olga Voronov is born and almost immediately sold to The Corporation. Her birth parents made a deal in exchange for money to have their daughter taken from them, raised by an android, and trained to manufacture advanced nanomaterials that will be used in an attempt to save Earth's sharply declining ecosystem. As one of seven bioengineered post-humans - also known as The Changed - Olga's mind works differently from that of a normal human, and by six years old she can already run complicated programs and simulations that aid in her training. At ten years old she will be declared fully mature and can work to earn her own money. Forced to live in isolation, she must remain at the High House, out in space but close to Earth, with only her android nanny, Arina, and all of the advanced technology she could ever want.

The Problem: Even with Olga's help, and the help of the other Changed beings, the earth continues to die, and the people on it continue to suffer. There are now only two classes of people: the very rich and the very poor. While Olga may know that the earth is in trouble, as that is the reason she exists, the full details of the horror are often kept from her. She laments the loss of Earth's oceans, as she dreamt of one day being able to swim in them for real, instead of in a simulation. But human suffering is of little concern to her, as she sees beings like herself as the next logical step in human evolution. But not everyone shares her view, and there are even some with the resources to reach her who would prefer she did not exist, and that humanity would be made to suffer the consequences of the world they have created.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that begins in the year 2086, and continues until Olga reaches the age of 12, at which point she has the appearance of a fully grown adult woman. Earth is in such terrible shape that a new class of human beings were bioengineered in order to save it. However, the process seems to be slow going, and while human life continues on the surface, many people suffer, and unemployment remains incredibly high. Those that are wealthy enough can choose to practically live in virtually reality, perpetually ignoring that chaos and destruction around them. And the continents and countries as we know them today are all but erased due to war and famine. When the book opens, Olga is only six years old, but she is already extremely intelligent and The Corporation trains her hard. In many ways she is like a normal kid, as she loves hot chocolate, dreams of swimming in oceans with dolphins, and often neglects her homework in favor of video games. But her intelligence sets her apart. It also helps to make her cold towards the people she was born to help, but smart enough to realize that even she may not be immune to the chaos that is taking place below.

My Verdict: It is always difficult to enjoy a book where the protagonist is not likeable. And if her enemies are not sympathetic either, then who does the reader root for? Unless the story is incredibly inventive and captivating, the result is either profound indifference or annoyance, or perhaps both. Once I realized that Olga was not much interested in the plight of the human race - something that is only a natural result of her upbringing, intelligence, training, and extreme isolation - I stopped being interested in Olga. The future that Hamaganov created is, however, inventive and interesting. Earth's history from the year 2030 through Olga's birth is full of wars and fighting, as well as the controversial invention of androids. Of course, any alternate history (or future) that deals with conflicts between countries where there is a clear winner and a clear loser is going to anger and annoy some while delighting and amusing others, and the one presented here is no exception. 

Favorite Moment: When Olga begins to realize that her situation and status is not as secure as she once wanted to believe.

Favorite Character: Everyone in this dystopian future has their faults, and they are all hiding something from someone. I even hesitate to pick Arina, Olga's android nanny who is nurturing and patient, while also firm and resolute.

Recommended Reading: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty presents another version of Earth's future, but this one introduces cloning and the many moral and ethical questions that can come from it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

I decided to tackle Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 as my first fiction book after YA Fest, and I feel like I went directly into the deep end instead of wading through the shallow end first. Not only is this book a door stop, but it is also not something that I could imagine anyone lugging to the beach as a light read. If you are looking for a book that will take you some time and also require your full attention, 4 3 2 1 might be for you.

The Situation: Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born on March 3, 1947 to Rose and Stanly in Newark, New Jersey. He is a fairly ordinary Jewish boy, with a father who owns and works at his own appliance store, and a mother who enjoys taking portraits. But once the story of his birth is told, the novel splits into four different stories about four different Fergusons, as he is referred to. Each Ferguson has its own distinctive and independent path. Some characters outside of his parents will appear in all four stories, while others may only be in one or two. Sometimes his relationship with his father will be close, other times it will be strained. In one story, basketball will be his sport of choice, while in the rest, baseball will be his first love. The only thing that all four stories is guaranteed to have in common is that Ferguson is at the center of them.

The Problem: Playing the what if game does not always mean that the possible outcomes will be positive. Because all four Fergusons had their life begin in 1947, that means that their adolescents must take place in America during the tumultuous 1960s. Each Ferguson will have its own thoughts and feelings and reactions during a time when it may seem like the country is ready to tear itself apart. But often, the events that are happening within Ferguson's own family are enough to keep him busy. In every story, Ferguson's uncles are not the best people in the world, but how they affect his family, particularly his father, depends greatly on how Stanley handles them. The outcome of other events seems to depend little on the actions that precede them, but instead they come out differently only because a different story is being told. Each Ferguson has his own problems, struggles, and hangups. But each Ferguson also has his own friends, ambitions, joys, triumphs, and desires. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a contemporary fiction novel that could really be considered as four different novels, all about the same person. It is tempting to add the heading of historical fiction to this novel, as there is much detail concerning historical events in each story, and how they affected Ferguson and his simple life in New Jersey. Probably the event that dominates most of the novel, especially as Ferguson leaves high school and enters college, is the war in Vietnam, and the tensions it set off on our own soil. Every part of Ferguson's life, in  all four stories, receives a fair amount of attention. But because the Vietnam War is gaining traction right at the crucial moment when the Fergusons are approaching adulthood, it is the event that dominates the latter half of the novel. But beyond the historical aspect of the novel is the ambitious approach it takes to telling the story of Ferguson's life. Each Ferguson is different from the next, which even means some are more likeable then others. One Ferguson might be relatable and sympathetic, while another may be hard to read about, and still another may not be as interesting to read about, though a perfectly nice person. The stories begin the moment Ferguson is born, and continue until the fourth one graduates college, though not all of them are granted that luxury. The novel is a study in how different our lives could be if one minor detail were changed, or if fate simply decided to do things a little differently. And *spoiler alert* the title is somewhat of a countdown clock: As the novel continues, the Fergusons die off one by one, until only one is left and is revealed to be the real story.

My Verdict: First things first: This book is long, like Infinite Jest long. But given that the novel is really four novels in one, I suppose 800+ pages is not too much to ask for from the reader. I am always drawn to a book with interweaving narratives. While the characters in each story do not necessarily cross paths with the characters in others, it is interesting to see where different people show up in the four Fergusons' lives. And of course, it is just interesting to see what happens to each Ferguson and where he ends up. If I had an issue with the novel, it would be that it often gets lost or gets a little too deep into the historical context. Or that it will often take too much time in exploring every small detail that leads up to a momentous event or decision in Ferguson's life. I appreciate knowing every minor thing that led to Ferguson doing something, but often I would rather just get on with the event and move on with the rest of the story. But the four different stories are not simply an excuse to write four different novels and put it in between the covers of one. Auster manages to bring them all together in the end and also makes it clear that 4 3 2 1 is not just four different stories, but four lives of one person.

Favorite Moment: A well-placed blank page is a powerful thing, even when you know it is coming.

Favorite Character: Ferguson's mother Rose is more or less the one constant through all four narratives, which is probably a statement about her and her steadfast nature, as well as just how important she is in the young man's life.

Recommended Reading: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson takes the one life, many stories idea, but does it a little differently. Instead of having one life split into many, Atkinson's protagonist keeps reliving the same life, but different choices lead to different outcomes.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Nonfiction: Here We Are edited by Kelly Jensen

If I had one regret from this year's San Antonio Book Festival, it is that I missed out on attending the panel discussion titled The Future Is Female: Feminism for the Real World with Kelly Jensen, Jessica Luther, and Siobhan Vivian. The thing is, I was volunteering at the time of the panel. But I was able to buy the book, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, and have all three women sign it. The book includes 41 other voices as they write and draw about what it means to be a feminist today.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is a collection of essays, letters, comics, web posts, and drawings, all about feminism and what it means to be a feminist. Most of the entries were written specifically for this anthology, while a few were taken from other publications and online entries. At the beginning of each chapter or section, there is a brief introduction to the subject. Sprinkled throughout the entire book are short but informative FAQs about feminism, and nothing is left out. Nothing is left untouched. The chapters are broken out into subjects like getting started on your own feminist journey; the body and mind; gender, sex, and sexuality; culture and pop culture; relationships; confidence and ambition; and finally, finding your own feminism that works for you. Ultimately, you may not be the type who will hop onto a podium and given an impassioned speech at a rally (Lord knows I'm not). But you may be someone who is good at listening; good at expressing themselves through writing or singing or drawing; good at seeing someone who is hurting and simply offering them your presence. All of these are helpful. All of these are necessary. Feminism does not belong to any one type of person or any one group of people. If you're willing to fight for change, you can join the movement.

My Verdict: Although this book is geared towards the young adult crowd, it would be good for pretty much any adult to read it too. Though I suppose that isn't too terribly surprising; in my opinion it would be good for adults to read most of the young adult novels I come across. Here We Are is a great anthology offering a wide range of voices from different cultures and backgrounds, all speaking on the issue of feminism. Courtney Summers, a YA author whose books I have featured on this blog, wrote a fantastic essay about the likability rule that is unfairly applied to female characters in literature, especially when that character is hurting or attempting to speak out about an injustice. Actress Amandla Stenberg makes a couple of contributions, but my personal favorite is an Instagram post of hers titled "Do Female Black Lives Matter Too?" Muslim blogger and YA author Kaye Mirza wrote about how faith and feminism can go together and are not at all mutually exclusive. YA author Brandy Colbert wrote about something I could certainly relate to: growing up without a sister, while also not having many female childhood friends who were also black. And of course, there is the excerpt from Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, which basically confirms the fact that all of the accomplishments you may have had in high school are immediately forgotten about and lose all relevance upon graduation. There is a lot of material here and a lot to take in. Wherever you are in your feminist journey and wherever you stand, there is something that can be gained from this collection.

Favorite Essay: A Thousand Paper Cuts by Shveta Thakrar.

Favorite Quotes: "Get sliced open enough, bleed enough, and you start to hold back. You ball yourself up tight, so there's less of you showing." - Shveta Thakrar

"When talk of reproductive justice  by white feminists focuses on abortion access and ignores the way the right to reproduce has throughout history been taken from communities of color, from disabled women, or from anyone who doesn't fit a narrow mold, it's not just ignorance at play. It's the very real problem of being immersed in a culture that positions motherhood as something only certain women should be able to access and protect." - Mikki Kendall

"While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips, and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally." - Amandla Stenberg

Recommended Reading: All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister was my favorite nonfiction book of 2016, and the author was also a guest at last year's San Antonio Book Festival.