Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Review - The Future of Us, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

This kind of book is not my usual choice, but I had the good fortune to meet the authors and get an autographed advance reader’s copy. Turns out, this is right up my alley, and I just didn’t know it yet. While not particularly profound, it is a quick, smart, and satisfying read.

This book’s concept is largely unchanged from the random conversation between the authors that I’m sure it came from. It’s 1996, and Emma’s best friend Josh comes over with one of those America Online CD-ROMs we all once got in the mail and promptly put in the microwave for their pyrotechnic value. Or, you know, used them as coasters, or whatever the rest of you did with them. Anyway, as Emma prepares to venture into the Interwebs, she notices a blue-and-white login box. Thinking this part of AOL, she enters her password again, which leads her to some strange website called Facebook. Further exploration with Josh reveals what seem to be versions of themselves from fifteen years in the future, with everything one would expect from a Facebook page: photos, banal status updates and... naturally... relationship status. Suddenly endowed with the ability to know her future and take steps to change it, Emma begins fiddling with her own future based on the scraps of info she can pull from her future self’s Facebook wall. Josh, on the other hand, fears what such meddling could do to their lives, both in the future and in the here-and-now.

This book grabbed me for a very specific reason. I am 31 years old, and therefore was the exact same age as these characters at the exact time it takes place. It’s like a cultural love letter to my youth. Furthermore, I spent the nineties dealing with the unrequited love of a close friend or two (as I imagine many of you have, as well), so I found the dynamic between Emma and Josh painfully realistic. My personal biases aside, though, this is a pretty neat story. Time-travel stories are fraught with peril, in that they invite science nerds to point out everything logistically wrong with them, but this one is believable. It keeps the “how” vague, because honestly, “how” doesn’t matter. The characters matter, and this story stays focused on them, with split-perspective narration between Emma and Josh that works well and keeps the book moving. There is a strong theme of not being so caught up in tomorrow that you neglect today, but it’s a theme that is inherent and not delivered heavy-handedly. This is a book that’s easy to get caught up in; I devoured it relatively quickly.

The only problem I had with the book has to do with the same reason it resonated so easily with me. I’m not entirely sure what the audience is for this book. Because it’s marketed as YA, it has to do some heavy lifting in terms of setting. Today’s teens don’t remember the 90s, and so there are constant shoutouts to the fads and pop culture of the time. Some of this works (the music, in particular), but most of it feels awkward and gratuitous, and makes the time-travel aspect seem a little gimmicky. On the other hand, while The Future of Us is tailor-made for those of us who actually grew up in the 90s, it doesn’t quite go deep enough to tap into that thirty-something sensibility. There are a couple of great scenes in the book that show how mutable the future is, but instead of really throwing a curveball like it could have, the story ends on a tidy, sweet, and predictable note. Honestly, I think Asher and Mackler could have done a lot more with this story (with everything about it intact) if they had aimed it at adults instead of the YA market.

But for what it is, it’s fantastic. This is a quirky little romance that’s perfect for socially networked teens, and it’s a cultural paean to those of us who actually got those CD-ROMs in the mail, once upon a time.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review - Glow, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

This is definitely a case of the right book hitting me at the right time. I’m currently neck-deep in an addiction to the video game Mass Effect 2, which has precipitated a definite sci-fi jag in my entertainment tastes. This rich little dollop of YA sci-fi, which I got to read as an advance reader's copy and will be published in September, is just what I was looking for. It had a couple of procedural issues, which kind of makes me want to knock a point off depending on my mood, but this is a great start to what promises to be a fun series.

The first volume of the Sky Chasers series introduces Kieran Alden and Waverly Marshall, a young couple aboard a huge starship called the Empyrean. The Empyrean and its sister ship, the New Horizon, left an ailing Earth over forty years ago, carrying the hope of creating a new world and saving the human species from extinction. Kieran, being the first baby born to the original Empyrean crew and an all-around golden boy, is first in line for the ship’s captaincy. Everyone expects that he and Waverly will get married, and she does love him, but she has her doubts about whether she really wants to marry him, or if she is merely succumbing under the moral imperative to procreate. Her realtively sedate troubles are violently interrupted by the appearance of the New Horizon, which is supposed to be years ahead of them. An unexpected turn of events separates Waverly and the other Empyrean girls from everyone they’ve ever known, where they must find a way to escape a desperate captivity that is insidiously disguised by good intentions and comforting lies. Meanwhile, Kieran finds his capacity for leadership truly tested, when Seth Ardvale, a rival for Waverly’s affections, decides that Kieran isn’t fit to lead. Facing an increasingly dangerous mutiny and with no adults available to step in and take charge, Kieran is forged into a leader that might save them all, or might take them further down the path to annihilation.

So, I need to address two things right away. First, more and more teen books have characters with names like Kieran, Waverly, Brayden, Madison, et cetera, and my irritation with this is proof that I’m officially getting old. Second, I really wish everybody would stop trying to market new books as “The Next” version of whatever recently made piles of money. Yes, this actually is a fantastic readalike for The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t change the fact that repeatedly bleating “OMG THE NEXT HUNGER GAMES” is marketing at its most crass, and it makes my eyes twitch.

Okay, with that out of the way: this is solid sci-fi, and a fantastic teen book. It definitely places more emphasis on action and character development than it does on space and starships, but it does what it does very well. Of particular note is the interesting way in which it handles religion. A few chapters in, I was ready to dismiss this one as another version of the same story I’ve read plenty of times: religion bad. Being no fan of religious fundamentalism myself, I’m pretty okay with that, but it’s a somewhat tired trope. But then Ryan pulled the rug out from under me: secularism bad, religion good? Wait, no, religion still bad, maybe? Turns out, religion and secularism in this book’s universe are as good or as bad as their adherents. Gee, what a concept. And this not only makes for intriguing character motivations, but deftly sets up the framework and dominant theme for the rest of the books in the series. This, more than anything else, has me excited about how the next books will turn out.

The only problem I had with this book is that it had a whole lot of story tell in a fairly short amount of time. Like I said above, Glow is action-packed, and things move along briskly and with satisfying tension. Trouble is, the story occurs over several months, and it’s somewhat disorienting trying to reconcile the dialed-up pace with the apparently missing chunks of story time. The problem is exacerbated by the split in the narrative; once Waverly and Kieran are separated, the book follows their individual stories in different chapters. Each story could conceivably have its own novel-length treatment, but they are combined into a slim multithreaded plot in which they chronologically overlap. The process leaves certain elements feeling unexplored, or even artificially rushed.

The book also ends with a massive cliffhanger, making no bones about being the first part of a series. However, the two story halves each get a respectable climax, and the cliffhanger comes at the end of some dramatic falling action, letting Glow stand alone quite well. I think there are a few too many things to pick at to call Glow a complete success, but I personally loved it. The story is exciting and satisfying, the setting is a fresh take on a familiar concept, and the utopian themes and realistic motivations are a breath of fresh air in an expanding field of teen sci-fi where the bad guys are bad because they’re just bad, man, and it’s up to the teenagers to make everything all right.

That, I think is my favorite thing about this book: it isn’t at all clear who “the good guys” are, or what the best course of action for the teen protagonists is.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review - The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

I first read this book for a class in high school, and remember being completely enamored of it. Rereading after an intervening fifteen years of reading experience has given depth to that appreciation. Immediately after finishing, I left the book nonplussed and somewhat unimpressed. After thinking about the story for a day or two, though, I’m in love all over again.

The Maltese Falcon is an essential detective novel and, along with Raymond Chandler’s works, a hallowed progenitor of the hardboiled genre. For those that haven’t already seen Humphrey Bogart’s turn as Sam Spade, I don’t want to ruin any part of the tangled, complex mystery, because all of the fun in this story is in trying to make your way through its moving parts. Let’s just say it starts how you would expect: sullen, sarcastic private eye Sam Spade sits in his office, flirting with his secretary and shooting the breeze with his somewhat oafish partner, when the dame walked in. It started as a simple case, tailing a shady character in order to track down his beautiful client’s sister, but things get complicated quick, and people end up dead. Soon, a host of shady characters are calling on Spade, offering him vast sums of money in exchange for a mysterious black statue that one of them likely already has. Meanwhile, Spade’s acquaintances in law enforcement are increasingly suspecting him of foul play, and his client seems to shift her allegiances whenever the wind changes. Using only his wits and his cool, Spade has to get to the bottom of things without getting wrapped up in them himself... hopefully ending up with a pocket full of cash, to boot.

I finally realized why I had to think about this one for a bit before reaffirming that I love it: Hammett leaves a huge amount of subtext up to the reader to decode. The story is classic noir, and reads just like watching a noir film. In fact, there are no internal monologues, omniscient narrations, or transcriptions of character thoughts. Everything is in the dialogue, and it’s up to the reader to determine what the characters are thinking, which is easy sometimes, but intriguingly impossible much more often. And man, what dialogue it is. Hammett’s writing is whip-smart, and the snappy patter never lets up. Sam Spade, in particular, is a bottomless pit of cool. He’s got a line for everything and everyone, and he never sounds trite or overdone, despite being the literal template for every booze-soaked, cigarette-rolling, skirt-chasing private dick since. He is the best kind of detective to read: the guy that always gets his man, but is quick to acknowledge that he’s always out for number one and never quite clear on just how corrupt he may or may not be.

The other characters in the story are considerably more stereotypical; they fit their assigned roles and play their assigned parts. Again, though, the beauty of Hammett’s writing makes them stand out, in that nobody’s motivations are ever revealed, and the reader only gets a glimpse of what’s really going on. This carries through to the plot, in that while Spade eventually solves one mystery, there are plenty of questions that go unanswered. This isn’t a tidy drawing-room mystery. This is a crime story mixed with an intrigue tale, and it's delightfully messy.

The 1941 film is probably the version of this story that most are familiar with, and rightly so, considering that it’s one of the best films ever made. But Hammett’s original story is a must-read, especially if you like detective fiction or film noir but haven’t yet seen Bogie do Spade. There’s a certain kitsch factor at work, considering that the book will fulfill every last expectation you might have of a book about a hardboiled private eye and the femme fatale that showed up at his doorstep one evening. But having those expectations fulfilled is the best part about this classic.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review - The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

I don’t understand how you do it, Patrick Rothfuss. I can’t stop reading your ridiculous fucking books.

The Kingkiller Chronicle books are getting a fair amount of buzz, and well they should. They are epic fantasy in the classic vein: young boy with roughshod background turns out to be The Hero, and goes on a Hero’s Journey in preparation for a much-foreshadowed confrontation with evil forces. It’s time-tested comfort food for fantasy readers. Moreover, Rothfuss is a fantastic author. As I mentioned in my review for The Name of the Wind, he can turn a phrase like few others can. He writes characters and scenes so well that I didn’t particularly care that Kvothe is an obnoxious, smug little Mary Sue with unearthly good luck, or that The Wise Man’s Fear doesn’t have any recognizable climactic action or, for that matter, any story structure at all. I was too busy turning pages to find out what happened next. Well, that’s not entirely true; I did care. A lot. But I was ravenously turning pages anyway. Seriously, I have no idea what to think about this one.

Again, this book doesn’t really have a cohesive story to summarize, being largely an extension of the first book: Kvothe the innkeeper sitting with the Chronicler and relating the continuing adventures of Young Kvothe. The best way to synopsize this book is to consider it a road novel. After a meandering introduction of Kvothe continuing to be the best at everything while at the University in Imre, his quest to find out more about the Chandrian and avenge his family’s murders leads him away from his new home and out across the known boundaries of the world. Now, in theory, this is the perfect next step for developing Kvothe’s character and moving the story along. It works in practice, for the most part. Most of Kvothe’s adventures are compelling, even if they usually result in him growing more as a legendary badass than as a fully developed character. But each fun, well-written part is balanced out by something completely ludicrous. I honestly felt disoriented after finishing this one, trying to decide if I loved it or loathed it. Spoilers ahoy, so skip to the end if you don't want to know some of the major plot points.

When Kvothe first leaves the University, he ends up in the court of a foreign ruler (known colloquially as the Maer), tasked with navigating the intrigues of the local nobility and getting into the Maer’s good graces. He does this by foiling a long-game assassination attempt due to his exceptional powers of observation, and by playing Cyrano de Bergerac to woo the ruler’s lady love for him, which is naturally a cakewalk due to him being the Best Musician Ever. This would all be just fine (especially considering the hints throughout the book concerning just who the Maer’s lover is), if one could forget for the barest moment that Kvothe is sixteen years old. One star.

Kvothe then ends up on an expedition in the wild as the leader of a mercenary band. Since, you know, if I were a powerful noble, I would definitely put a sixteen-year-old in charge of a mercenary band. This part, however, is the strongest section of the book. Kvothe’s struggle to maintain his position amidst battle-hardened sellswords is actually interesting and believable, and the conclusion of their mission (which is the closest thing to a climax that this book has, even though it’s a little past the halfway mark) is tense and has interesting implications for the larger story. Five stars!

Then, there’s Felurian. The Felurian part. I just... I don’t even... I mean...

Okay, the Felurian part. So, this is foreshadowed since the blurb on the first book: "I spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life." Apparently, Felurian is a faerie spirit that is essentially an avatar of sexual desire. Capricious and seductive, she lures men into her domain for no reason other than her own desire and relatively innocent curiosity, but the awesome sexiness of her otherworldly sexitude is too much for a mortal man. Those who don’t suffer a massive coronary from the vigor of her faerie sex are left broken husks, spending the rest of their short lives pining for her after her curiosity and lust are sated. Kvothe, the sixteen-year-old virgin, stumbles into Felurian, and of course, she can't help but sex him up. But Kvothe the sixteen-year-old virgin has sexy sexitude powers of his own! He is so naturally gifted at the sexing that Felurian, the faerie spirit of lust, can’t get enough of his sexy sex. There’s still the problem of escaping her domain, but Kvothe manages that by once again being the Best Musician Ever. But Felurian decides that she won’t let her boy-pet back into the mortal world if he’s not the Best Sex Machine Ever, in addition to everything else, so she spends forty pages teaching him the secret faerie arts of sex wizardry. Seriously. Literally thousands of techniques are apparently imparted, with mysteriously sexy names like “Ivy Climbs the Love Tower” and “Rhino Fondles the Pomegranate,” or whatever. I mean... really? Zero stars, plus an additional penalty for squandering what could have been a fantastic goddamned story opportunity.

Here’s the thing: I could see how this would actually be a cool moment in the book. For all of Kvothe’s skill at everything he touches, Rothfuss has taken pains to depict him as woefully inept when it comes to romance. This could have been made a central point as to why his encounter with Felurian went as it did, especially considering that he manages, just for a brief moment, to master the art of Naming while in her domain. Something could have been made about the state of mind that sexual bliss encourages, especially to those that don’t already have preconceived notions about what it is, and this huge chunk of aimless titillation could have had a point. Instead, Kvothe lounges around naked and marvels at how he can’t remember how many times he’s grabbed Felurian’s breasts, or how much honeyed bread he’s eaten. Deep, man.

Anyway, that steaming ladleful of stupid is balanced out by one of the most intriguing scenes in either of the Kingkiller books: Kvothe’s encounter with a malicious faerie deity that calls into question everything he’s ever done from that point on, and implies that he may be doomed no matter what he does. My imagination is still reeling after reading it. After he escapes from Felurian, he ends up in the homeland of the stoic Adem mercenaries, and spends some time learning their ways. It’s a solid bit of world-building that honestly could have used its own novel-length exploration, but it really is a joy to read. Eight stars, and a demand for a side-project book about the Adem!

And then you once again remember that Kvothe is sixteen frigging years old, and accomplished more in a couple of months than any of the Adem did in years. That knowledge is stuck firm in your mind as you read about his encounter with a group of bandits that had kidnapped some farm girls and subjected them to days of rape and humiliation. By this point, it’s a forgone conclusion that Kvothe will save the day, but the revelation of him being the Best Consoler of Rape Victims Ever is just a bit too much to take. One of the girls had retreated inward after her brutal ordeal, and Kvothe manages to bring her around again just by being awesome. Okay, that’s easy enough to accept, I guess. But near the end of this vignette, the apex of this girl’s anger, shame, and helplessness is expressed thusly: “I hate men!” To which Kvothe deftly responds, “I’m a man too. We’re not all like that.” I’m not sure whether to be aghast at the author’s indelicate, crass handling of such a poignant and potentially provocative scenario, or appalled at how Kvothe is apparently still considered the most smooth-talking ladies' man ever to rescue a damsel after such a clumsy, boorish response. Either way, I have no earthly idea what this whole section is even doing in the book in the first place, as it doesn’t add a single bloody thing to the story. Negative fifty stars, and I want Patrick Rothfuss’s lunch money.

Sigh. I just don’t know. The thing is, there is justification for these problems right there in the text, because once again, Rothfuss is fundamentally a good writer. We have a classic case of an unreliable narrator, expounding on a theme of history and mythology being largely indistinguishable. We have a story framework that revolves around a broken, defeated man, who may have been marked for tragedy from the outset and who is obviously consumed by regret at the folly of his youthful arrogance, as the ritually repeated prologues and epilogues make clear (by the way, after the fourth time you read one of those florid passages, they start to become irritating). Both point to glimpses of a larger theme, and a purpose to everything that doesn’t currently make sense. Both also make me feel as if I’m being an apologist for a thousand pages of masturbatory author wish-fulfillment.

I can’t get around the fact that I really liked reading this book, and though I was frequently outraged, I was never bored. I would definitely recommend this to fantasy readers, and it decidedly belongs in the “must-read” pantheon for the genre. As for myself, though, I can’t decide between giving it a completely non-scientific five stars for being fun, smart, and readable despite its flaws, or an angry one star for the brazen, sustained assaults on my suspension of disbelief. You’re all duly warned, I guess, so I’ll split the difference with three stars.

This must be how Twilight fans with any remaining sense of shame feel.

Verdict: 3 / 5, I guess.