2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Dystopia, Ernest Cline, Fiction, Science-Fiction

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was first published by Broadway Books in 2011. I’ve had it on my “to be read” pile for about six years and finally decided to read it as part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge because the movie adaptation is releasing this March. The story is set in the United States, in the year 2044. The world is a bleak and dismal place. War, disease, and famine has become a world-wide problem. Economic, social, and government institutions have all but collapsed, and income inequality is at its greatest levels of all-time. Despite these problems, technological advancements have continued and the new ideal world is one called the “OASIS,” a virtual space unlike any we could currently imagine, where people can be whomever they choose. People can meet and get married in the OASIS, children go to school and earn their diplomas through the OASIS. It is a beautiful and powerful opportunity and, as it turns out, also deadly dangerous. When the creator of the OASIS dies, leaving behind an immeasurable fortune plus control of his company, an international, play-to-the-death quest begins. The first person who can solve each riddle and beat each boss, wins it all. Billions of dollars. Total control of the OASIS. But despite years and years of effort by individuals, groups, and corporations, the scoreboard remains empty. Empty, that is, until one lonely, poor, awkward geek named Wade Watts, AKA Parzival, figures out the first test and beats it. Then all hell breaks loose.

Ernest Cline’s style is effective in creating this science-fictionalized, virtual reality cross-over world, where people exist in two places simultaneously, sometimes as themselves but often not. He creates great tension in the idea of this universal split-personality, where everyone is someone else and where people are often only truly honest in the virtual world. The tone, too, is appropriate given the content and topic. Cline writes with a kind of frenetic irreverence that suits the abundance of geeky reference, nerd history, and 1980s pop culture that permeates the narrative. It is crystal clear who this story is about and what kind of audience will be attracted to it, though I don’t think the book will be appreciated only by self-professed geeks like me. This is because the prose itself is engaging, the pace is fast but not overwhelming, and the two worlds being created are delicately balanced and well-treated so that both seem believable, each with its own graces and terrors.

THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION. One of the most common and powerful critiques I’ve read from other reviewers about this book is its lack of characterization or problematic issue with stereotyping, and I get it; there might be some problems here. First, though, I want to start with what I think was a great strength for this novel’s characterization: the antagonists. The bad guys. They are so realistically normal, and so realistically evil, in that deeply human way, that I found them horrifying and compelling at the same time. What is the nature of their evil? Greed and a consuming desire for power. That said, some reviewers have pointed out weaknesses in character development, as when Wade Watts, having fallen in love with a girl, realizes that he is overweight and thus commences to get in shape (the process of which is described in just a few sentences so, sure, that’s a bit unrealistic). The rather fanciful and laughably easy weight-loss/fitness process aside, I’m not sure what the primary resistance is to that character’s impulse. How many of us, especially when we were young, tried to modify our appearance to impress a person we were interested in romantically? I appreciate that the “message” isn’t great, but is it unrealistic?

In addition, some have argued that Ready Player One is just another cis-white-het-male fantasy because the protagonist is a white heterosexual male. Do we need more diversity in fictional protagonists? Yes, particularly in the still male-dominated genres of science-fiction and fantasy. That said, I can’t fault a good novel and its interesting-if-flawed hero because of the fact that he is a straight white male. I also appreciated the diversity of his friendships (though, as I will discuss in a moment, reviewers have found plenty to fault there, too).

SPOILER AHEAD. I’ve also read critiques about the way Cline draws some of the diverse characters: Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto (OASIS character names for real people). Wade’s best friend in the OASIS is Aech, whose character is a heterosexual male but who, it turns out, is a black lesbian woman in real life. When the two finally meet, Wade is taken aback for a moment, and then they have a good laugh and carry on like the best friends they are. Some have taken issue with the fact that Wade was shocked by Aech’s real gender/race/sexuality, and others have said the character was drawn that way to tic all the “diversity” boxes. I simply didn’t read it that way. To me, seeing a straight white teenage male discover his best friend is a black lesbian woman, and then shrug it off as entirely unimportant, was a welcome and powerful statement, especially in the science-fiction genre which remains heavily heteronormative.

SPOILER AHEAD: There have been complaints, too, about Daito and Shoto being stereotyped by their race. There are a few pages where the two, plus Wade, repeatedly mention the word “honor” as in, was someone’s actions honorable or not. At first glance, I could see how this might come across as racist: you’re drawing Japanese characters and scripting them with cheesy samurai film clichés? But, wait. Daito and Shoto identify as samurai. They talk about honor because they care about honor. I’m not convinced that this is the author being lazy or making a racist mistake in narration or dialogue; to me, it is an expression of what is important to the two characters themselves, and it aligns with their backgrounds and their other actions throughout the novel. (But do Parzival and Art3mis both need to repeat it in the span of a few pages? No, probably not – I hear you, there.)

SPOILER AHEAD: Lastly, I’ve read criticisms about the love-interest, Art3mis, and the development of Wade’s and Art3mis’s relationship. Some have said she “succumbs” too quickly in the end, after rejecting his advances for so long. I’m again on the opposite side of this debate, I guess. The two were the top competitors in a prize that would change not just their own lives, but the entire world. Art3mis took the smart route, which was to focus on the tasks at hand. Wade couldn’t get past his feelings for her. What’s wrong with either of these responses? And who is to say that, once the competition ends, particularly given all that the two go through and all that Wade does for Art3mis, Aech, and the others in the real world, where all of their lives are at risk, the two wouldn’t come together after all?

Ultimately, I do agree that characterization is the weaker element for this novel. I think there’s enough to make us care about Wade’s success and about the fate of his friends, but there are also things that happen too quickly or perhaps go without enough explanation. Wade, too, makes some decisions which leave us wondering whether or not we should be thinking of him as a hero, but as Aristotle suggests, an effective hero is mostly admirable and to be rooted for, but he is not necessarily perfect.

The Huffington Post calls Ready Player One, “The Grown-Up’s Harry Potter.” This isn’t quite right. Although there are some comparisons between the Muggle/Wizarding world and the Real/OASIS worlds, and between the orphaned lives of Harry Potter and Wade Watts, Ready Player One is much more of a realistic science-fiction novel than it is a fantasy. As a child of the 1980s, and a self-confirmed geek, I saw much more of Stranger Things in this novel. It’s a dystopian thriller for contemporary society. And I loved it. Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Ready Player One is Book 3 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Fantasy, Madeleine L'Engle, Religion, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

“It was a dark and stormy night.” The first book in the Time Quintet is the most well-known and recognizable. The book is classified as “science fantasy,” which is to say, science-fiction but also with elements of fantasy (the three traveler-guides who are often perceived as types of witches, for example, though I would argue this is a misreading). Of the five books in the series, this one is often rated as “third best,” for whatever that is worth, but I think it is my favorite. Partly, I must admit, this is nostalgia. I grew up with this story, it was my sister’s favorite, and I read it before reading any of the others (this was a re-read). That being said, if I am being honest, it is probably not the best of the five. What it lacks in, say, plot, it makes up for in other places, though, such as characterization. L’Engle understands how to draw a character in clear and in subtle ways. We know who the protagonist Meg is; her actions are not always noble, but they are always consistent to her character and ultimately work toward the good. We know who young Charles Wallace, the special genius, is, and how a boy wonder, untested, might find his first challenge is a struggle with his own ego; and we know who Calvin is, and why he belongs with the others despite not being one of their siblings. Without this first installment, I would find it difficult to understand or care about any of the characters in the later books, including An Acceptable Time, which deals with a new protagonist and, for the first time, the first-hand experiences of the Murry parents. I also much prefer the three mysterious guides, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, far more than the guides in any of the later books (although Gaudior the Unicorn from A Swiftly Tilting Planet might come close). Ultimately, what I love about this book is its unabashed embracing of science, including the wonder and, yes, the magic of reality, great and small. It also introduces a common theme to be explored in later books: the nature of good and evil, moral and immoral, selflessness and selfishness. If I have one complaint, it is the ending – where did they go? And why don’t we see them again? (Who? Read the book.) My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.   

A Wind in the Door (1973)

“If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.” This second in the series picks up not long after the first. It takes the elements of morality (one might even say the human soul) and science, and merges them together in seemingly impossible ways. What if we could connect every single element of all that we know, from the grand scale of the full universe to the smallest, most miniscule and unobservable atom within us, and discover that they function in a delicate relationship? In this second book, L’Engle’s exploration of religious faith (particularly Christian) and its co-existence with scientific fact begins to come more clearly into focus. Suddenly, the books begin to speak as spiritual tracts and as scientific treatises. Who does that? Well, not many, and perhaps this is what has so fascinated readers of this series for so very long, the idea that one need not prefer or subordinate a belief system to a scientific understanding of the universe, or vice versa. Of the five books in the series, I think this one is the most interesting and in some ways the most playful, as it has a Magic School Bus for grown-ups kind of attitude about it; however, the story gets repetitive at points, and the dénouement, though rather beautiful, is a bit rushed and anti-climactic. Characterization also gives way to plot and purpose, in this case, which is why I think it is important to start with A Wrinkle in Time, otherwise we might care about what is happening to Charles Wallace, but we might not understand Meg’s and Calvin’s actions quite as well. (The introduction of the anti-hero principal, though, was both funny and powerfully moving).  My Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978)

“People are afraid of knowledge that is not yet theirs.” Of the five books in this series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet is my least favorite. It jumps ahead in time by 7 or 8 years, and gives us Charles Wallace, at 15, as protagonist. The premise is absolutely fascinating: the world is on the brink of destruction, and only by visiting important moments of the past and making the one single change, at the precise right moment, will that destruction be avoided. Charles Wallace, via, somehow, Calvin O’Keefe’s mother, becomes a time traveler, with the help of an ancient Celtic rune and a magic, time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior. The one thing I found most irksome about this installment was its repetition. An evil force from A Wind in the Door is re-introduced, and the pattern Meg and Calvin followed on the tiniest scale as set in the last installment, is now followed by Charles Wallace, but in a much grander way, through time and space rather than at the cellular level, within a human body. Gaudior is funny at times, and while not emotive, he eventually becomes a kind of friend and protector for Charles Wallace. The historical episodes introduced, and the patterns of mythologies traced from the ancient Celts to the Native Americans, down to South America, and finally to present-day New England, is definitely thrilling. The fact that much of the mystery unfolds through discoveries made in textual evidence, like books and journals, also tugs at the heart-strings of any reader/writer. But the flow is choppy and Charles Wallace is, in my opinion, not well-served by the manner in which he travels. He is much too much an interesting character to have been relegated to a type of “body snatcher” whose experience is actually related through Meg’s psychic connection with him. That said, L’Engle continues her pursuit of bridging the world’s mythologies with scientific and technological advancements in an effort to highlight the ethics and morality, and necessary limitations, of intellectual pursuits, as well as human hubris. My Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0.  

Many Waters (1986)

“In the coolness just before morning she liked to go sit on one of the great exposed rocks and rest, and listen to the slow song of the setting stars.” Sandy and Dennys Murry, the brilliant but practical siblings in a genius but often impractical family, finally get their adventure in this fourth installment, and it is one of the best. Although the fourth book in the series, this one is actually set between A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The children are all still living at home, but when everyone else is away for the day, the twins–messing irresponsibly with their mother’s experiment–accidentally transport themselves to another time, which they mistake as a distant and different planet. The people are shorter, the language is different, the sun is hotter, the land dryer, and the technology non-existent. When Sandy and Dennys are discovered by the natives of this brave new world, which turns out to be their own ancient world, they are mistaken for giants or angels. Readers soon discover this is because both giants and angels exist in this time, and in this place, which is the land of Canaan just before the flood. In this antediluvian setting, Sandy and Dennys must figure out both what their purpose is in being there—was it God’s plan?—and also how to get home before the Nephilim, the fallen angels, decide they are too dangerous to their plans for world domination. With a little help from Noah’s family and the Seraphim, the teenagers manage to mend Noah’s relationship with his father and essentially save the entire human race. L’Engle makes a clear turn toward not just mythologies/faith systems in general, but the Christian religion (readers familiar with the Book of Genesis will recognize a lot of familiar names and places). Again, science and faith work together to tell a cohesive tale, rather than competing with each other in a dichotomy. Of the five books in this series, Many Waters is the most distinct, though it does reference events in prior books, and it is the most patient and complete of the stories; it never feels rushed, nor does it end too soon. My Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0.

An Acceptable Time (1989)

“I’m grateful every day that I can read and write. I don’t underestimate knowledge. But we get into trouble when we confuse it with truth.” In this final installment of the Time Quintet, L’Engle takes us a generation into the future, installing as her protagonist, Meg and Calvin’s daughter, Polly. Once again, L’Engle demonstrates her mastery of character: she understands who these people are, how they think, and what are their motivations. This is fortunate because some of the characters re-appearing from the previous novels are treated more fully, here, and we realize they are not necessarily what we expected. Are the brilliant Drs. Murry really so narrow-minded? Does the fact that they are grandparents, now, make them more cautious over Polly than they were over their own children, or were they simply not accepting the reality of their children’s adventures in the first place? After getting this far into the series, it was a surprise to be surprised by some of these characters’ actions, but in understanding their motivations, things turn out to be rather consistent after all. In addition to the Drs. Murry, we are introduced to Zachary, a semi-romantic interest for Polly, whose personality and described physiognomy are alarming from the first. He, too, remains rather consistent throughout, even to the point of disgusting the reader. In contrast are the Bishop and the native people, whom Polly and the Bishop (and Zachary) meet when a centuries’-old time circle overlaps their own, so that they can cross the time-space barrier. In this way, L’Engle again manages to place at the center of her story a discussion of religion (monotheism and polytheism, mythologies, druids, modern Christianity) with scientific possibilities. Most importantly, L’Engle explores the concepts of charity and forgiveness. What does it take to forgive someone who has committed the ultimate betrayal? The nature of evil, too, is treated with more finesse and complexity. Is it fair to call what is seemingly necessary, evil? While most of the original young cast of characters is absent from this tale, Polly is a wonderful addition: curious, gracious, flawed. Her journey to understand the universe, to understand faith, and to understand people & human nature, makes for an interesting and complex finale to a series that asks these questions consistently throughout. My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.

Ultimately, I have to say that I am thrilled to have finally read this entire series. I most appreciate that L’Engle finds equal space for religious and scientific exploration, without making these antithetical the way so many do, as if we must choose one way or the other. Even though I do not follow her faith, I think this is a unique success for her series. Also, for the longest time, I had no idea that A Wrinkle in Time had even one sequel, let alone four! I do eventually want to read the related novels that deal with some of the same cast (and I assume similar themes). Someday. For now, L’Engle’s Time Quintet has definitely made its way onto my “favorite series'” list. It hovers somewhere under Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and His Dark Materials, but above Chronicles of Narnia and maybe even the Percy Jackson books. Gasp! 

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Atheism, Biography, Books, Contemporary, Dan Brown, Fiction, Hillary Rodham Clinton, History, LGBT, Lisa Williamson, Literature, Memoir, Peter Ackroyd, Politics, Religion, Science-Fiction, Thriller, Transgender, Willa Cather

5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

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Book Review, Chuck Palahniuk, Contemporary, Contemporary American, Fiction, Horror, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

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Angie Thomas, astrophysics, Book Review, Christopher Golden, comic books, Contemporary, Fiction, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Non-Fiction, Race, science, Science-Fiction, X-Men, Young Adult

X-Men, Astrophysics, and Hate

X-Men Siege (Mutant Empire #1) by Christopher Golden

A few weeks ago, I was at Half-Price Books selling a big chunk of my library when, lo and behold, I stumbled across all three books in this Mutant Empire series. I’m absolutely upset with the 1990s version of Marvel Comics’s X-Men and, years ago, I had read another novelization (a cross-over with Star Trek: The Next Generation called Planet X by Michael Jan Friedman), which I really enjoyed; so I knew I had to grab these, especially since they only cost a few bucks.  X-Men: Siege brought me back to those ’90s comic books I so loved, and to some of the film adaptations. There’s much that is familiar to anyone who grew up reading the Uncanny X-men series, but plenty that is unique, too. Magneto has begun his plan to create an all-mutant Utopia, beginning with a remote location off planet earth but with the intention of, eventually, taking over the entire planet. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing for Cyclops’s dad, a kind of intergalactic space pirate, and the Shi’ar Empire. Professor Xavier decides to split the X-Men into two teams, one to take on each of these terrible challenges. For those who don’t already know the characters, especially the liminal ones, it might be a bit of a confusing or uninteresting read; but if you already know and love these stories and characters, then you’ll probably enjoy Siege quite a bit. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, but I do wish the author had found a better proofreader/editor (the number of typos is a bit jarring). 

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I’ve been wanting to read more science books for such a long time, but while I was buried by reading for my PhD, I just couldn’t find the time. So, I was pleased when, right about the time I graduated with my degree and found some time for actual “free reading,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes ahead and publishes a new book! And, as the title suggests, for someone like me who is often, “in a hurry.” What are the odds!? While I can’t pretend to have understood everything in this book, I do think I got the gist of most of it, and that is, I think, the point: to help folks like me who are curious about science and who want to be a bit more scientifically literate, get there. Tyson has an engaging voice and style, and he can explain complex topics very directly and through the use of helpful analogies. Tyson also has a larger purpose, here, which is to explain why science is so important and how dangerous it is for a society to move away from it, the way we here, unfortunately, have been doing for some time. He explains just how much science means to him and how he believes a scientifically literate culture can feel more, not less, connected to one another. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of astrophysics, concisely addressed, and they’re all fascinating. My favorite part, though, has to be the very brief final chapter titled, “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective.” It’s simply beautiful. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas 

This book: wow. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe this book and my reaction to it. For help, I started to search through the blog-o-sphere (or at least the parts of it that I watch) to see what others are saying, or even just to have links to send you all to for reference and good thoughts, but to my surprise, the majority of what I’ve found = thoughts such as, “I need to figure out how to review this!” Hey, at least I’m not alone! Essentially, The Hate U Give is an incredibly timely and relevant perspective from an honest and creative new voice that is much-needed in our culture right now. Starr is a 16-year-old black girl living in a dangerous city. Her father had been in prison but is now a successful business owner. Her mother is a nurse with great potential. Her uncle is a police officer who lives in a beautiful, gated community. She and her brothers go to private school in another district because her parents are able to afford it. In other words, she lives in two worlds. She witnesses the best and worst possible of all American cultural and societal realities. The worst? She has seen her two best friends killed in front of her eyes. The best? She has a strong and loving family, a boyfriend who loves her, and some* real friends who accept her for who she is and not for the color of her skin. Thomas is giving us such a powerful and important story, here, but more importantly, she offers multiple perspectives, a number of options, and a the sense of hopeful possibility, without proscribing a single ideology or facetious answer to our nation’s complicated racial problems. I can’t wait to see what she does next (I hear a film adaptation might be in the works). 

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Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Event, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fiction, GLBT, LGBT, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

Thoughts: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

18079719Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

So, this is the way the world ends.  Not with a bang, but with a …uh… clacking-buzzing sorta sound? Yes, I think T.S. Eliot would be proud of Andrew Smith’s newest wasteland, which is to say, an average, all-American, small town in Iowa.  Of course, this small town just happens to be infested with gigantic, horny, insatiably hungry grasshoppers. Luckily, there is one historian present to witness and record the strange happenings that lead up to the end of the world: Austin Szerba.  Our narrator-historian is a corn-fed teenager just as horny and insatiable as the unstoppable grasshopper army. Okay, to be fair to the cannibalistic insects – Austin is probably hornier than they are.  But at least he doesn’t eat everybody. Young Szerba hilariously, but adeptly, graces his readers with the histories of a town, a family, a friendship, and the founding of a new world order.

Here’s the thing, though.  The premise of the book, as outlined above, might sound a bit ridiculous.  And, in spots, it’s far from believable.  This is because it’s rooted in science-fiction which, by its very nature, is not meant to be entirely realistic; yet, we know that much of science-fiction has indeed anticipated our actual scientific discoveries and technological advancements (anyone notice that Star Trek had tablets and wireless communication devices decades ago?). On the surface of Grasshopper Jungle, then, is an action-packed coming-of-age story with groovy, original and horrifying science-fiction elements.  Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find that Smith is asking some seriously profound questions about life, power, love, independence, and responsibility.

So, maybe mutated humanoids-turned-insects who breed like there’s no tomorrow (‘cause there ain’t, folks) isn’t your bag.  This book is still probably for you.  Why?  Well, because of everything else that Andrew Smith gives us in this book.

For example, we are saved from totally wigging-out over the nasty self-inflicted bug invasion at the core of the story by the presence of three very real, very believable, and very human protagonists who happen to be mired in a wonderfully messed up ménage à trois.  Robby loves Austin.  Shann loves Austin.  Austin loves them both.  It’s confusing and it’s painful.  It’s erotic and it’s maddening.  It’s teenage life in the Midwestern United States, where a young man is coming to terms with his sexuality, his family history, and, yeah, the realization that he just might be the destroyer of the world, the savior of it, and the chronicler of the whole damn thing, too. Holy shit.

What else can I say about this book?  Andrew Smith understands young adult males like few writers out there today.  He also has a superhuman ability to weave incredibly fantastical tales with deeply moving stories about the human experience and what it is like to grow up feeling different.  After Stick, and Winger, and so many other incredible books, it is impossible to deny that Smith has a cosmic connection with the teenage male psyche and all that comes with it.  So if you are prepared to enter that deeply disturbing, sometimes heartbreaking, but always hilarious world of the teen boy mind, then you will find no better avenue than this.


Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: Young Adult+

Interest: Science-Fiction, Coming-of-Age, Sexuality, LGBT, Friendship, Dystopia, Family, Fictional History. Midwest USA, Corn.


Notable Quotes:

“We never heard sirens in Ealing. It’s not that bad things never happened here, it’s just that nobody ever bothered to complain about it when they did.”

“History does show that boys who dance are far more likely to pass along their genes than boys who don’t.”

“I was on the conveyor belt toward the paper shredder of history with countless scores of other sexually confused boys.”

“Good books are always about everything.”

“History never tells about people taking shits. I can’t for a moment believe that guys like Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill never took a shit. History always abbreviates out the shit-taking.”

“History shows that an examination of the personal collection of titles in any man’s library will provide something of a glimpse into his soul.”


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Book Review, Chicago, Coming-of-Age, Dystopia, Fiction, Science-Fiction, Veronica Roth, Young Adult

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

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Divergent by Veronica Roth

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 41


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

In Chicago, sometime in the (not too distant) future, society has been torn apart by war, and those who remain have separated into factions:  Dauntless, The Brave. Those who believe in justice and freedom from fear.  Erudite, The Intelligent. Those who believe in peace through education and growth from knowledge. Amity, The Peaceful.  Those who believe in kindness, forgiveness, and self-sufficiency.  And Abnegation, The Selfless.  Those who believe in self-sacrifice, altruism, and love of God and others before one’s self. And then there are The Divergent.  The most dangerous of all, these are the ones who seem to belong to all of the factions, and none.  Their skill sets are wide, which makes them feared by many.

Upon coming of age, every young adult must choose a faction, usually the one they are born into, but also with guidance from certain tests that take place the day before selection. Those who change factions are often shunned by their families forever, and those who do not make it through their faction’s initiation, become factionless – loners – as good as dead and only cared for by the Abnegation.  Sixteen-year-old Beatrice (Tris) Prior is one of the Divergent – a secret she must discover for herself, and then protect from all others, or risk certain death. While training with her faction, she uncovers other secrets, secrets that will tip the balance of power and cause great unrest – even war- among the four factions, unless she and her small group of friends can stop it.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

One of the things Divergent has going for it, unlike some of its contemporaries (such as The 5th Wave) is a good deal of substantive character development and relationship-building.  Sure, you have the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” but there are also characters who remain somewhat mysterious, with the potential to go either way.  Beatrice is a flawed protagonist – a heroine we can root for, but one with realistic faults and challenges, which makes her all the more endearing and relatable.  You also get subtle hints, early on and then throughout, that many of the minor characters have back-stories of their own.  Some of these are discovered, some remain mysteries (possibly to be explored later in the series?).

In addition to Tris, another interesting character is her mentor and love-interest, Four.  He and Tris have much in common, though they (or Tris, at least) cannot be entirely sure of their connection.  Their relationship is interesting to watch and adds a decent side-story to the main plot.  The minor characters, like Tris’s family, Peter, Drew, Al, Molly, and others from the faction are necessary but not terribly memorable.  Even the major antagonist(s), including the leaders of two factions, as well as a mentor in Tris’s faction, serve their purpose, but their backgrounds and motives are not very well explored.  Meaningful and/or believable motivation always makes a “bad guy” more interesting, but the explanations, here, seemed more convenient than anything.

Prose/Style:
4 – Excellent prose/style, enhancing the story.

Roth’s style is well-crafted and fast-paced.  The interplay of action/violence, romance, and mystery/self-discovery keep the story interesting and allow it to progress with intrigue – a classic bait-and-hook technique which keeps the reader asking “What happens next?” Although Tris’s story was interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, the minor characters and subplots were not as richly crafted.  It is unfortunate that some of the glazed-over moments (such as the rising tension between the Erudite and Abnegation factions, witnessed through newspaper/press releases which are read by (or to) Tris) are not treated with as much intricacy and delicacy as the main plot.  Developing these subplots further and truly integrating them into the overall story, rather than crafting them in such a way as to leave them sort of floating on top, would have added great depth and richness to the story.

This is a similar failing as is made, in my opinion, by Suzanne Collins in Mockingjay.  Whereas The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were rather nuanced, the third book seemed to be a slap-on ending to a series that, ultimately, did not need to be a series.  So, too, do the subplots in Divergent sometimes stick out as sore thumbs – there, but not nearly developed enough to care about.  That being said, the writing is fluid and gripping; the prose is appropriate to the genre and intended reading level; and the overall experience of reading it is a positive one, which does make one interested in finding out what else Roth can do with Tris, the factions, and the development of this world.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

Divergent is one of the first young adult dystopian stories that I have enjoyed in quite some time.  Not since Ender’s Game have I been enticed enough by a story to truly want to pursue its sequels.  While I have read and enjoyed other recent books/series of this type, such as The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s series is a fresh idea, delivered in a clean, entertaining way, and seems to stand out in a genre which has many overlapping elements and borrowed ideas (The Hunger Games, for instance, having been very much a reimagining of Battle Royale, to give one example).  All that being said, the idea of the factions and what they stand for; the loathing of “outsiders,” as well as who should care for them (and why); and the fear of those who do not fit into a predefined mold – Roth has taken these very natural, every day challenges and molded them to fit a dystopian world, one which was built on human limitations and which will be threatened by distinctly human evils.

Above all of this, though, is the simple coming-of-age story.  The fear and anxiety that we all have, upon reaching adulthood, that we are not quite ready to handle these new responsibilities – that we might make bad decisions which, now that we are in the real world, could have disastrous consequences.  We begin to define who we are not in relationship to the family (or faction) we are born into, but the friends and families we choose.  This is a simple, age-old theme that dates back to the beginning of storytelling, but in Roth’s hands it feels new and exciting again.  Divergent, despite some faults, was a page-turner, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Dystopia, YA, SciFi, Coming of Age.

Notable Quotes:

“To live factionless is not just to live in poverty and discomfort; it is to live divorced from society, separated from the most important thing in life: community.”

“Valuing knowledge above all else results in a lust for power, and that leads men into dark and empty place.”

“I believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.”

“Becoming fearless isn’t the point. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it, that’s the point.”

“Why do people want to pretend that death is sleep?  It isn’t.”

“They try to make you think they care about what you do, but they don’t. They don’t want you to act a certain way. They want you to think a certain way. So you’re easy to understand. So you won’t pose a threat to them.”


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