Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Read: 22 May, 2016

In this book, Mary Roach explores the weird science and history of space exploration. As with Stiff, the writing is absolutely delightful – full of humour, interesting factoids, and tangents in all the right places.

Roach always seems to be able to guess just what sorts of follow up questions I might have, and is always ready with either the information I’m craving or perfectly suitable substitute joke.

It’s so hard to write a review for a book that is so flawless. Packing had me in stitches – it’s the kind of book you read around other people so you can interrupt them all and read out passages. And the best part is that no one will even be annoyed!

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    Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

    Read: 21 May, 2016

    In the period after the Death Star’s destruction, Rebel pilot Norra returns to Akiva to find her son. Of course, things go awry – specifically, remnants of the Empire’s leadership happen to have gathered on the planet to decide the fate of the galaxy now that it’s emperor is dead.

    Right off the bat, the writing style is very sub-par. It took me a long time to get into the story enough to (mostly) ignore, but then it would just jab at me with awkward or inefficient phrasing. Things like: “The TIE wibbles and wobbles through the air, careening drunkenly across the Myrrann rooftops – it zigzags herkily-jerkily out of sight.”

    Yeah.

    The characters themselves were fine. They were pretty stock and didn’t exactly have emotional range, but I figured that was something that didn’t evolve in the Star Wars universe until after the events of the original trilogy anyway (with a few very rare sparks here and there).

    For the most part, the characters have Backstory and Function, and then are otherwise left to just fulfill the needs of the plot. Which isn’t a terrible thing if the plot can carry it and – for me – it did. Not that it was spectacular or anything, but stuff happened, there were fights, there was action, there were explosions… I wasn’t exactly expecting a Star Wars version of McEwan’s Atonement.

    One thing I really liked – and loved in the recent movie as well – is that the galaxy feels much more full than it did with Lucas at the helm. With the original trilogy, all characters (with the very welcome exception of Mon Mothma) are male unless the role demands otherwise. This left men as the default, and women as the sex slaves, maternal figures, or the love interest. Lucas seemed to try to fix this in the prequels, but fell quite short of success.

    With the recent franchise, women have been much better distributed. They pop up in the background, they lead Stormtroopers, they’re around. It’s been so refreshing to finally, after thirty years of being a fan, to see the galaxy have room for someone like me.

    Aftermath does the same, but takes it one step further – it writes women back into the original trilogy. Norra, our main character, was a pilot in that final battle – a pilot who was never onscreen but, now, has a story and a place. And I am willing to overlook quite a bit for making me – finally – feel welcome in a franchise that I’ve adored my entire life.

    Unfortunately, the writing style is pretty terrible. With all the money and resources at their disposal, I sincerely wish that Disney had selected a better writer to handle this book. In most other ways, they seem to take the franchise seriously, and to want us to take it seriously as well. They seem to want to mainstream Star Wars fandom on a level that it hasn’t been before. But I think that the first step needs to be to give these books to authors who will be able to tell the stories with the care they deserve.

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      The Once And Future King #1: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

      Read: 17 May, 2016

      This really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. My dad had given me an old paperback copy of The Once And Future King when I was a child interested in Arthurian legends, but he made it sound like a very serious, stuff tome – a perception that wasn’t corrected by the fact that this thing is an absolute brick. It ended up sitting on my shelf for nearly two decades before I finally decided that I’d give it a read through audiobook (my preferred vehicle for fantasy novels suffering from gigantism).

      It turned out to be very different from what I had assumed. For one thing, it’s clearly aimed at children (specifically boys – there are almost no female characters in the whole book, and the two I can think of are a) Maid Marianne, and b) the witch, Madam Mim).

      The story is episodic, each usually involving some adventure Merlyn sends the young Arthur (often accompanied by his foster-brother Kay) on. These mix and match different stories, including Robin Hood! Most of these adventures include some kind of lesson: A discussion on the nature of time, an introduction to embryology and evolution, etc.

      The book is still quite a brick, and I think it would have been difficult to get through if I had tried to just read it to myself. It did work well as an audiobook, though, and I think that it would have worked fairly well as a bedtime story – with each adventure read aloud and treated as self-contained.

      I found the novel to be quite funny, particularly the episodes with King Pellinore. The audiobook reader was clearly having a lot of fun with those episodes, what?

      Overall, I found the book a bit dated, and it’s hard to see it competing for children’s bedtime attention given the options that are available now. But it was still a fairly enjoyable read, a good story with some food for thought and amusing humour. I may give it a try on my kid when he’s a little older.

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        Wool by Hugh Howey

        Read: 18 April, 2016

        Wool has been on my radar for a little while – at least since Hank Green mentioned it in one of his Stanley Parable videos. Every so often, I’d go to the book store with a little spending money and check a few sections for it (is it fiction? is it science fiction? is it… fantasy? mystery?) and always left with something else instead.

        After at least a year of this, I finally looked it up. Apparently, Wool isn’t sold in stores. You have to buy it online. Well, that’s nice, I got it from the library.

        A lot of the buzz surrounding the book is that its world is immersive (as Justin Cronin’s blurb on the front cover has it: “You will live in this world”). And that’s certainly been my impression. The location does feel very tangible, even if there were a few fuzzy areas. Namely, that each level seemed to be very single purpose, but surely that must mean that some levels are much smaller than others. Would a nursery floor (what the maternity wards seem to be called – the practice of segregated nurseries seems very odd and out-dated) be as large as the farming floor? Are there apartments beyond the nursery? Do people trying to get home after a shift have to walk through the nursery in order to reach their homes?

        But the fact that I spent so much time trying to envision the silo and how it’s supposed to work isn’t really a strike against the book. It means that the silo felt real enough for something fuzzy to stand out.

        There were a few weak moments in the book. One was with the characterization of Jules – I found it difficult to really grasp her. When she’s first introduced, she’s completely uninterested in the outside. She can’t be bothered with it, she can’t understand the obsession with seeing the screens or cleaning the sensors. She’s happy in Mechanical, and she urges other characters to focus on the silo, not on the outside. But then, soon after she takes over as the POV character, we find out that she used to pour over children’s picture books and dream of the outside. Right from childhood, she is described as having been a dreamer for the broader world. This is a detail that doesn’t come up again. It is merely brought up, out of the blue and contrary to the character we’ve been getting to know up until that point, and then dropped.

        This grasp of characters may be a bigger problem. I noticed it with other POV characters, like Jahns and Holsten. They seem distinct when we first meet them through the eyes of a different character, but once they slide into the control chair, they all start to seem very much alike. Jahns becomes very much like Holsten, and Jules becomes very much like them both. By the end, where the narrative bounces back and forth between two primary POV characters, they are largely indistinguishable in voice.

        I also found that the narrative loses a lot of focus near the middle. There are a few chapters there (I noted this observation on p.282 in my copy) where the writing quality drops very suddenly. Throughout that portion, characters seem to be acting based on authorial need (like when Jules doesn’t wonder how the plants could be growing in pitch dark – since the author knows that the silo does in fact still have power), rather than their own drives.

        But these are relatively minor gripes. The world is compelling, and the mystery carries the story quite well until the characters grew on me. There were times when I found myself reading almost breathlessly, desperate to see how the characters get out of the latest jam. Setting up a few POV character deaths early on, combined with some flash forward trickery, raised the stakes. I couldn’t trust that the main characters would survive, and had evidence to believe that they wouldn’t. It made reaching the end quite thrilling.

        Where the book suffered, it seems to have been a victim of its publishing history. The serial aspect of it, combined with the lack of an editor, would explain the variations in quality and occasional lack of consistency. But I am, of course, being nit-picky, as usual.

        Having now read the book, I’m not sure whether I will be ordering it or not. It was an enjoyable read, but I don’t know if it was an enduring read – something I’ll want to come back to again and again in future, something I’ll want to lend out for others to share. That’s the trouble with novels that rely too strongly on a “mystery box” – once the answer is known, there needs to be something else for readers to come back to. I think that Wool comes close, and does try to have some profundities about human nature and such, but the ideas were too shallow, too overshadowed by the mystery to stand on their own.

        On the name: Like others, I puzzled over the name. It’s strange, and there’s no wool in the book (as far as I can tell). There is, however, the expression “pull the wool over their eyes,” which is the central theme of the book.

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          Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

          Read: 8 April, 2016

          On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

          This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

          The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

          The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

          The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

          That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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            Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Rift by Gene Luen Yang

            Read: 4 March, 2016

            Aang tries to recapture the past by bringing his new Air Acolytes to a festival in honour of Yangchen, the previous Air Avatar. When they arrive, however, they find that the sacred meadow has been replaced by a factory co-owned by Toph’s father.

            While the focus in The Search was tying up an Avatar plotline, both The Rift and The Promise seem to focus more on setting up the world of Legend of Korra. Here, we get to see more of how the four nations mingled, as the factory works through the cooperation of Earth, Fire, and Water benders.

            The Rift also sets up how the world of Korra moved away from bending toward technology, creating an environment in which a figure like Amon could rise. It’s all very ambitious and, in my opinion, very well handled.

            I think that where The Search fell a little flat for me is that Aang didn’t really have a central struggle. His search for balance – and the ways in which he is influenced by the friends (and even the enemies!) around him – has always been the source of the most compelling plotlines. Here, he is torn between his desire to preserve the past and the necessity of allowing the future to be. We see him decide what sort of Avatar he will be – the kind who will work to preserve the world in amber, or the kind who will nurture and guide the world as it grows. And that is good storytelling.

            The side plot of Toph seeing her father was fine, but fairly bog-standard. He is initially stubborn, then she gets to show off how awesome she is, then he comes around and accepts her. That’s nice and all, but I’ve seen that a thousand times before. It only worked because I am already invested in Toph as a character and because it wasn’t the central storyline – which is why The Search didn’t work nearly as well.

            I’ve just started re-watching Korra with my family (who haven’t seen it before), so I’m really excited to share these bridging stories with them!

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              Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang

              Read: 2 March, 2016

              In The Search, we follow Zuko’s quest to find out what happened to his mother. It’s a far more personal story than The Promise, and it doesn’t tackle issues of the same magnitude. Still, it was nice to see that plotline resolved.

              Unfortunately, I found it rather disappointing. Much of the plot hinges on a letter in which Zuko’s mother confesses that Zuko is not actually the Fire Lord’s son. It would be strange for his mother to put something like that in a letter when she suspected that her husband was intercepting her mail, but it would have been forgiveable for the extremely compelling choices that would come from it. What would it mean for Zuko’s identity? For his loyalty and love for his father and sister? Would he have to suppress the information to remain Fire lord and keep Azula from the title? That’s all some pretty heavy stuff, stuff that is lightly touched upon as the friends carry out their search for Zuko’s mother. Unfortunately, it all turns out to have been fake.

              You see, Zuko’s mother knew her mail was being intercepted so she lied about Zuko’s parentage because… Well, we’re never really given a reason. I suppose that’s fine since complicated people doing messy things is a big part of what the series is about, but that does seem rather beyond what might be expected.

              But the bigger issue for me is that it takes a way a lot of what we knew about Zuko’s mother. In the show, she always seemed to be kind, wise, and loving. Her final act was to accept exile, and never seeing her children again, to save Zuko’s life. Now, however, we find out that she just had her memory erased and got to live with her true love and have a new family. I’m all for smashing up the Angel Of The Hearth narrative for mothers, but this isn’t how it’s done.

              There’s plenty that I loved about the book. The artwork is great, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and I’m always happy to revisit these characters. But there was just so much about this story that struck the wrong note for me, and so many opportunities for it to have been something far far better.

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                Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Promise by Gene Luen Yang

                Read: 1 March, 2016

                Picking up where the series left off, Aang and his friends must decide what to do with the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom.

                The comic read just like the show. The artwork is very consistent with the show, and the dialogue is pitch perfect. Reading, I kept hearing the characters’ voices.

                The story itself is as accessible and thought-provoking as the show. After a hundred years of colonization, Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom citizens have formed bonds with each other, focusing on Kori – who is both an earth bender and a Fire Nation citizen. Aang, Zuko, and King Kuei have to find some way to right the wrongs of invasion and colonization without tearing families and friendships apart.

                Meanwhile, Aang is dealing with the responsibility of being the last Air Nomad, and how his identity as an Air Nomad can come into conflict with his duties as the Avatar. This is complicated when members of the Aang Fan Club decide to start copying Air Nomad culture, and even give themselves tattoos. This brings the issue of cultural appropriation into the broader discussion of colonization, and have I mentioned that this is a kids’ show?

                Thought-provoking and staying away from simple answers, The Promise is a wonderful addition to the Avatar canon. It also helped me to understand a little more of the background that went into The Legend of Korra, and how the world came to be that way.

                I doubt that the comic would hold much interest for a reader who hasn’t watched the show, but I couldn’t recommend it enough for fans of the series.

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                  On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

                  Read: 29 February, 2016

                  John Chandagnac was a puppeteer-turned-accountant on his way to Jamaica to reclaim his birthright from his thieving uncle. On the way, however, his ship was captured by pirates. Chandagnac must become the pirate Shandy to defeat the magic-wielding pirates, save a magician’s daughter, and claim his family fortunes.

                  I really enjoyed most of the book. As with Anubis Gates, the writing style is tremendously exciting, and this time he’s got swashbuckling pirates to work with instead of just Romantic poets. I tore through the first 80% of the book, hardly able to put it down. But then, as with Anubis Gates, it just lost me. The book seems to lose focus toward the end. When I read Anubis Gates, I got the sense that Powers had just become bored with the story and was trying to end it quickly so he could move on. On Stranger Tides seems to have suffered from the same problem. The killing of Blackbeard, a terrifying character throughout and the prophesied goal for our main character (according to Woefully Fat, the bocor who infodumps the information Shandy will need to accomplish his goals) is over in a flash, and his character lacks all the menace that had been cultivated throughout.

                  The saving of Beth Hurwood felt rushed, and the reclaiming of the Jamaican estates is just dropped entirely – despite being the stated goal from the very beginning and despite Shandy’s uncle being narratively brought back from the dead in order for it to happen.

                  The magic system itself is a bit of a touchy subject. There are, of course, real Vodun practitioners, and they are not typically the kids of people who have a lot of social power. The taking and using of their religious beliefs for the entertainment of outsiders is a problem. That said, the magic system worked quite well in the context of the story, it paired well with the plot.

                  There were some gender issues with the book as well. There are very few main characters, with only two who are meaningful to the plot. One of those is dead, and the other is a helpless, even catatonic damsel through most of the plot (though she does have some potential when she’s conscious). Other female characters include the mother of a bad guy with an Oedipus complex, and a few women in the pirate camp who are either sexually available or attached to a male pirate (or both). Even more offensive, one of these latter women is named Ann Bonny. That’s right, one of the most famous female pirate captains is here reduced to a pirate wife and potential sexual distraction for the main character. The erasure of women in fiction and history isn’t exactly uncommon. Whole worlds are constructed where women just don’t seem to exist at all, or they exist elsewhere, or they hang around in the wings to provide goals, distractions, and the next generation of characters. It’s annoying, but at least Powers has the excuse that he’s grown up in a culture where this is normalized. Naming one of these background characters Ann Bonny, however, just feels nasty. Better to pretend she doesn’t exist than to remake her as little more than a wife and potential sexual conquest.

                  I still found the story gripping, and it was full of wonderful ideas and creepy imagery. But aspects of it, particularly on the gender side and how the baddies were constructed, made it feel very dated.

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                    Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

                    Read: 14 February, 2016

                    Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story of two teenagers who share a name and just happen to meet by pure luck in a Chicago porn store. Though they have very little in common when they initially meet, their lives soon become entwined through Tiny Cooper, the first Will’s best friend and soon-to-be the second Will’s boyfriend.

                    The premise is somewhat ridiculous (I’m being generous), and that’s largely why I waited so long to read the book (I went through my big John Green phase around 2012, when The Fault In Our Stars came out and pretty much everyone went through a big John Green phase).

                    There’s a lot about the book that I liked, but it didn’t really do it for me. Overall, this felt like a “I didn’t read it at the right time” problem more than a “this book sucks” problem. In any case, there are particular aspects of the book that I wanted to touch on:

                    A lot of John Green books have these moments where characters have these perfect monologues – they express themselves perfectly, they say exactly what the other character needed to hear, and it’s very scripted. And that’s okay. Because fiction doesn’t need to be real, it just needs to be realistic, and sometimes things are said because the reader needs to hear them. A not-insignificant factor in my surviving until adulthood was hearing fictional characters say exactly the thing that I needed to hear at that moment (I’m looking at you, Janeway). These monologues don’t feel fake in the sense that people don’t feel these things or need to hear them, but fake in the sense that so few of us have living people around us capable of saying them. That’s an important difference because while I might groan that yet another character is delivering a John Greenologue, I’m also crying because I am touched by it. That has value.

                    The chapters about lowercase-will were difficult for me to read. I was also a depressed teenager (complete with medication, though I was never able to find a brand/dose that actually worked without unlivable side effects) with no real friends and an online relationship. The early chapters, where will is deep in his online relationship, felt like a mirror. That life where he’s just barely hanging on throughout the day until he can get home and talk to that one good thing in his life, that was me. As I was reading, there was this uncomfortable humour sensation of “wow, I was such an asshole.” I mean, it’s not like I didn’t already know I was such an asshole, but it was still difficult to have to watch it all over again.

                    The problem is the plot. I understand the necessity of having Isaac turn out to be fake, but the assumption that online relationships aren’t real, that the person I’m talking to must be either a predator or someone playing a joke, made getting through my late teens very difficult because there was no social approval of my relationship. Not that teen romances get all that much respect anyway, but they’re usually at least acknowledged as legitimate by other teens. In our case, however, telling anyone about our relationship meant lectures about “how do you know he’s not some 50 year old pervert?” Even from people who had met him. Even later, when we were living together and people found out how we met. The “so how did you guys meet?” question still gives me anxiety. All this made me rather disappointed in Levithan for creating yet another brick of stigma against online relationships, for reinforcing the idea that they aren’t really real. Just once, it would be nice to read a book about a character like lowercase-will who has an online relationship and that online relationship’s fakeness is not at the centre of the story’s conflict.

                    The focus on appearance was bothersome as well. Lowercase-will, in particular, is vicious toward women (covered in pimples so big they could be bee stings?), while every male is cute (even while he expresses his astonishment that he could ever find them so because of their disgusting body). The other Will isn’t much better (Jane’s hair is too curly?). The descriptions of Tiny’s weight are relentless from both authors. As someone who, like Tiny, has always been overweight, and as someone who has been severely bullied for it, it was very difficult to read. To make things worse, I don’t see why it was necessary. Couldn’t they just acknowledge that Tiny was overweight without making it so central to his character? Without being so relentless in insulting him? I mean, every single time someone encounters or thinks about Tiny, his body is central. I understand that there’s a set up for the climax there, but overweight people should not exist to be life lessons for thin people. Not even in fiction.

                    They could have focused on Tiny’s manic make-myself-feel-valuable-by-always-trying-to-serve-everyone attitude instead without losing much. As with the relationship with Isaac, there’s a point where it felt like the authors were less trying to help teens transcend and grow through their harmful attitudes, and more just buying into them themselves (and thereby reinforcing them for their readers). I would have liked for them to show a little more care when fat-phobia is literally killing people, not to mention all the less visible harm a lifetime of bullying trauma, self-hate, and social exclusion can cause.

                    I liked the focus on friendship in the book. Yes, everyone kinda pairs off by the end, and yes, the Will/Jane relationship takes up a lot of ink. But, ultimately, the central relationships that are dealt with in the climax are platonic friendships. That’s pretty rare to see, and I think it’s a harmful aspect of North American culture that we privilege romantic relationships to the point where friendships are almost seen as casual entertainment while we’re waiting for the main event. I’m not sure how I feel about friend relationships being central in a book that is so much about homosexuality (like, couldn’t we have sacrificed a hetero love story in favour of friendship instead?), but I do still appreciate it.

                    Overall, the book was fine. Like most of John Green’s books, it was a fairly quick read with tears at the end. I thought the two authors did a great job of meshing their characters, and I appreciated Levithan’s more brutal style. I’m not sure I’d want to read a whole book like that, but it worked well interspersed as it was by Green’s silliness.

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