Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Going Bovine

Some books aren't for everyone.  These are the books that certain people often like best.  Going Bovine by Libba Bray has the potential to be that book.

Ok that’s all I got, enjoy!

Fine, I’ll tell you a little more.

Libba Bray works very hard in this novel to relate to her audience and write from the perspective of a teenage boy.  In my humble opinion, she does a pretty good job.  I find this even more impressive after watching this interview of her and realizing that she is someone that her main character, Cameron, would probably laugh at politely in order to find a quick escape before revealing just how creeped out he is becoming.

The basic premise is that Cameron, a sixteen year old male epitomizing the phrase “youth is wasted on the young”somehow catches mad cow disease.  This allows the author to use his subsequent insanity as a vessel to create a modern day retelling of Don Quixote.

Cameron has a series of wacky encounters with extreme examples of modern American ideals and pop culture.  As one would expect he also takes a personal journey and grows up a little.  One of the things I appreciated about the book is that he doesn’t grow up too much.  By the end he is still a teenager.  His perspective on life has been widened, he has made some decisions that are less selfish than where his character was at the beginning of the book, but he is FAR from being a true adult or having figured out life.

One of the most noticeable ways in which Bray tries to relate with her audience is through her language.  I feel like an old curmudgeon for pointing it out but you should know that if colorful language is something that turns you off to a book, you may want to steer clear.  For me it brought up a sort of twisted nostalgia as I realized that my friends and I really did swear this much when we’d be talking in the hallways back in high school.

At the end of the day, I liked this book.  I like the pop culture references, I like the humor and I like the heart that manages to sneak through every so now and then.  The book won the 2010 Printz Award so obviously it has struck a cord with someone besides me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Lost Years of Merlin

In reviewing this book I feel I should be bluntly honest going in.  I like King Arthur stuff.  Not only do I like King Arthur stuff but I like the whole approach of taking King Arthur and placing him into a post-Roman dark age Britain rather than the more traditional Medieval setting.  I know that in recent years this has been done a LOT (Stephen Lawhead is one of the best), sometimes badly, but I like it anyway.  I remember watching the Clive Owen movie, wanting to shout at the screen (armor piercing!?), but at the same time loving the fact that I was watching King Arthur on a big screen!  

In a quick side note, so far the STARZ series Camelot looks to be one of the better interpretations I have seen, If you have Netflix you can watch it!

The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron markets the dark age Arthurian universe to young adults by keying in on the adolescence of Braver Sir Robin.  Remember him?

Ok fine so the book is actually about Merlin.  We first meet him as a six year old boy, washing up on the coast of Wales with no idea of his past or his identity.  He lives out the next few years with a woman found alongside him that claims to be his mother and calls him Emrys.  Around the age of twelve Emrys, growing increasingly curious about his origins, becomes involved in events that lead to a search for the truth of his mysterious past.

Like other recent Arthurian authors, Barron ties his story to Celtic tales from ancient Britain.  He does not throw in quite as many old names for people and places as some authors such as Lawhead, but includes enough that I believe it would pique the interest of any your reader to delve into these legends more deeply.  

At its heart this novel reads like an old fashioned coming of age story in a fanciful world.  In a time where so many writers in every medium go for “gritty realism” the charming nature of this story was quite refreshing.

As I stated in the beginning, I am a fan of King Arthur stuff so I admit that while I liked this book, it may not be for everyone.  I would recommend this for fans of fantasy and similar genres.  I also would not hesitate to use this book as an introduction to fantasy for readers that have not yet given it a try.

One last note, apparently there is a movie adaptation in the early stages of development.  I’ll be very interested to see how that progresses!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Ship Breaker

Here’s a fun question:  When you first started driving, what was the cost of gas?  When I turned 16 in 1998 it was less than a dollar.  I almost think I remember it hitting $0.89 at one point.  Now the notion of watching the “Gallons pumped” meter outpace the “$” meter is as foreign as having to actually remember your friends’ phone numbers in order to call them.  It makes one ask the question, what if the oil actually ran out?

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi takes us to a future world where that has actually happened.  Tankers, cruise ships, and all other form of oil dependant sea vessels now sit on beaches as fossils of what people refer to as the “accelerated age.”  Our main character is Nailer, a 13ish (he’s not completely sure about his age) boy living along the gulf coast where people survive by stripping the old ships of anything useful.  Nailer’s main talent is that he is small, so he is tasked with crawling into the smallest areas of the ships to remove copper wiring and other precious metals.

The book is marketed to young adults as most of the main characters are in their teens.  Readers should note that it does contain some very mature elements.  Nailer’s world is dangerous and violent.  His father is an abusive drunk, and many of the other people he meets aren’t much nicer.  Nailer is forced to confront a number of serious decisions, some with rather gruesome outcomes.  

I should be clear at this point, I am in no way dismissing the book due to its mature elements.  When I was a seventh grader at a small Lutheran school I had a teacher tell me that I couldn't use the novel Creature for my book report because it was inappropriate.  You may ask, how did I come about a horror novel in a nice Christian school?  I got it from the Scholastic book order the teacher gave me, duh.  Of course I read the book anyway.  It was an OK thriller with a few curse words and some people dying and I remember wondering why the teacher thought this was way to much for me to handle.

All that is to say that when we try to overly sensor what our students read, especially as they enter adolescence, we insult their intelligence and do them a disservice.  Ship Breaker addresses some very real issues of sustainability, poverty, drug use and economics that are worth discussing.  

I appreciated that the author did not try to get preachy or heavy handed about the exact circumstances preceding the end of the “Accelerated Age”.  We are dropped directly into Nailer’s present world and the challenges now facing him.  In this way the book does what science fiction should, it creates a fictional world with enough ties to our own that we are led to examine ourselves while still enjoying a good story.

Although the book does touch on a lot of different issues, at its heart it is and adventure novel with a great pace solid characters.  I would recommend it to any teen interested in action or science fiction stories.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Life as We Knew It

Does anyone else remember 90s disaster movies?  In my memory Independence Day was the one that really kicked it all off.  It used the basic formula of establishing several different perspectives, one of them being a person in high authority (The President), another being a lower level soldier or operative on the front line of what is happening (Will Smith), the next a scientific mind that has the insight everyone else is missing (Jeff Goldblum), and finally find an average Joe and give them something heroic to do (Randy Quaid’s family).  I remember seing this repeated over and again throughout the 90s in movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact, Godzilla, Volcano... any others I’m missing?

Anyway, the 90s ended and movies decided to change the formula.  Movies like War of the Worlds and Cloverfield took on the big disasters through the eyes of a single family or group of friends teaching us that a shaky camera is always necessary to pull this off.  Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer does just that in book form.  (I borrowed this book from my local library, which I assume is the reason that the necessary shaky cam was not included.  I found that reading whilst sitting in the back of a pickup traversing a field at 37.8 miles per hour produced the desired effect)

The basic setup of the book is that a freak incident causes the moon’s orbit to change just slightly, and as the book’s tag line goes “the weather finally broke, for good”.  Tidal waves wreak the coast, volcanoes erupt, temperatures plummet, and we see it all through the diary of a teenage girl in Pennsylvania.

First off (yes I’m 4 paragraphs in a using the phrase first off) as far as disasters go, I love the choice Pfeffer makes.  If militant aliens show up or a giant rock his the earth, the dangers are a little more obvious.  Having the rock hit the moon really is equally disastrous, but it takes a little more time for all the dangers to become evident.  As a teacher I love when a novel provides the opportunity to touch on different disciplines, and this provides a great opportunity to investigate the science of the moon and the relationship it shares with our planet and its climate.  This science of this is discussed somewhat it the book but not in any detail, providing plenty of room to elaborate with students.

Ultimately however the book is not about the disaster but the teenage girl named Miranda.  I’m sure that is this world there is a brilliant yet misunderstood scientist running around somewhere, but we never meet him, nor do we get to peek at the government master plan being planned in a secret bunker with lots of unnecessary computers screens.  Instead we follow Miranda, watching her concerns move from those of the average CW television character to basic survival.  

I found the pace of the book to be very rapid at first, but it began to slow significantly as the story progressed.  I think this may have been at least a little intentional, as Pfeffer works hard to paint an honest picture of a post-disaster world.  This is not an action packed story where roving gangs don football pads and terrorize the populace.  It is an increasingly isolated family battling nature and learning to depend on and support one another.

I also give Pfeffer credit for exploring a number of serious issues in a manner that is not too heavy handed.  We clearly see Miranda’s view yet she never claims to have mastered the issues with which she wrestles.  I could see a number of great classroom discussions developing from different scenes of the book.  Miranda has two close friends that we meet early on, and each chooses a different thing in which to place their hope as the world degenerates.  I found myself examining the choices I would make in a similar situation (and sometimes wondered why it should take a disaster to consider such things).

I recommend this story for anyone in middle school or older.  Although it contains what could be considered some elements of science fiction, it really is a very grounded story of human relationships that should appeal to a wide audience.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Game of Thrones

What can I say, I am a sucker for anything on TV where people have swords.  Growing up in the 90s I watched Braveheart more times than I can remember.   I watched all the Hercules and Xena stuff from Sam Raimi.  I watched the classic Erroll Flynn take on Robin Hood and even watched that Prince Valiant movie where everyone apparently thought they were in a Western… with swords, which made it ok.  As you can imagine, when I heard about HBO producing Game of Thrones, I got excited.

Well, I don’t have HBO, and with the amount of time it usually takes them to release a series on DVD it will probably be a while before I get a chance to watch their take on Game of Thrones.  For a geek who is a sucker for anything on TV where people have swords, this wait is incredibly annoying.  However the upside is that having taken the release of this series as an excuse to finally read the books, I can rest assured that I have plenty of time to finish them. 

Now that I have finished Game of Thrones, I find the fact that the HBO show took this book as its title to be a little funny.  Here comes the closest thing to a spoiler I’ll give you – the whole book is a setup to the rest of the series.  Yes, the idea that the first novel in a series would setup the rest of the books seems shocking but it is a crazy enough idea that it just might work!  I find it funny that this first book seems to carry the most recognizable title of any book in the series (or the series itself) when the majority of the action will clearly occur in the other novels.

I found myself really liking this book.  I thought Martin created some great characters and established a complex network of relationships that has the potential to pay off when all the players fully interact (which will probably entail a lot of sex and stabbing). 

My recommendation is that you give this book a read knowing that you are jumping into a full series.  Everything I have heard tells me that the payoff is coming, and will be well worth it.  

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Running Man

Believe it or not, this is actually the first Stephen King novel I have ever read.  However, since he wrote it under the name Richard Bachman, it may not actually count.

My first exposure to The Running Man was the 1987 Ahhnald movie, which featured all the intelligent dialogue and gripping drama one can expect from a 1980s Schwarzenegger film.

Understand, I am not complaining, I love me some cheesy action from the 1980s.  Back then people could not only hit targets at an astonishing 10% accuracy rate, but they could also do it while completely ignoring those weird pieces sticking out of the top of the gun (I've been told these pieces are called "sights" but they are no help when properly holding the weapon at your stomach).

1980s awesomeness aside, the original 1982 story has very little in common with the movie.  It is set in a futuristic world where people volunteer for reality TV shows where they are subjected to highly orchestrated forms of torture and derision in the hope of making a few bucks.  Thankfully our society has proceeded down a much more noble path than the one Mr. Bachman envisioned, and such television programs have never been produced.

In this world the top show is called "The Running Man."  As you can probably guess, there is a man, he is running, and if he gets caught he dies.  However where the movie turns contestants loose into some sort of giant American Gladiators set with roided up hunters driving big dune buggies and wielding chainsaws, in the novel contestants are let loose into the general public and required to check in with daily videos (yes, he predicted the reality TV confession booth).

The story moves forward relentlessly, making only one brief pause for some background where Bachman is obviously working to give us the bare minimum we need so that he can get back to the story.  I won't say that any of the twists really caught me off guard, but they were enough to keep me interested.  The final scene features a prolonged injury that would make for an interesting effect if anyone ever tried to do a faithful screen adaptation.  However I think anyone ever making a faithful adaption of the finale is pretty much impossible in our world, at least for a few more years (I'll let you figure out what that means).

Overall what I found myself enjoying about this book is that it is well written science fiction that makes several observations of the future which are coming dangerously close to being true.  No, we have not yet made a TV show where we intentionally set out to kill someone, but if someone did can we honestly say that there wouldn't be millions tuning in?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Way of Kings

Reading this book reminded me of The Screwtape Letters.  At one point Wormwood’s affectionate uncle Screwtape offered the young demon a particular temptation that has always stuck with me.
“You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favor of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books.”
I don’t know if anyone will ever consider The Way of Kings to be an extremely important book.  It is a 1,000 page beginning to what appears to be at least a 10 book series of fantasy novels.  This usually means that a certain group of people who are fans of the genre will eat them up, while everyone else barely knows of their existence.  The prose is pretty straight forward (more on that later) and while there are elements of politics, racism and religion at play, the book doesn’t seem to be trying hard to make a point in any of these areas.

It’s just a lot of fun to read, and I find that very refreshing. 

Don’t be fooled, this is not just a quaint little story.  Sanderson is creating a new world of his own here, and it looks to be big.  What is revealed in this first book evidences a long history, diverse cultures, and a unique environment which itself looks like it will be playing a major role in the plot as the series develops.  Sanderson gives us enough detail so that we have a feel for this world, but one can easily see that he is holding a lot back, and I don’t fault him for that.

This brings me to his prose.  Usually when I see a book this big, I expect a lot of it to get bogged down in overly long descriptions of characters and places or internal monologues within the mind of a character that more than anything serve as filler.  However Sanderson doesn’t let his writing get in the way of his story.  The plot moves forward quickly, jumping between multiple story lines in a way that effectively held my interest.  He does provide plenty of descriptive details, but these are stretched out throughout the story rather than just dropped in a big lump whenever we meet something new.  I found myself changing the internal images I had created of different characters and settings multiple times throughout the story. 

I wouldn't say the story all that original.  Sanderson does use a number of clich├ęs often found in fantasy or adventure novels, but has given them enough of a twist that I found them interesting.  Like I said earlier, reading this book was just a lot of fun.

I know what you may be thinking, “Yes that’s all well and good but I’ve read this supposed review of yours and I still have no idea what the book is about!”  So sorry, let me get to that.

There is a world full of stuff and people are fighting and stuff and there is a guy who got in trouble over some stuff and now has to carry stuff and this girl who wants to learn stuff so she can steal stuff and an older guy that is in charge of a bunch of stuff and they are all connected in a great big story.  Also it is a fantasy book so there is magic stuff.  To learn more read it yourself and enjoy!