Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review: The Hidden Oracle, by Rick Riordan

Oftentimes it's the hero who's the least interesting character of an adventure story, especially in many young adult stories. Generally the hero is a bland person who either has no personality or just blandly sticks to principle. Rick Riordan has created a very different sort of fantasy-adventure hero in his god-turned-mortal, Apollo. Humorously egotistical and witty, Apollo alone would be worth the read, but the story is also entertaining.

Cast into a heap of garbage as a mortal, acne-ridden teenage boy, Apollo reflects on his accomplishments and what reasons his father, Zeus, would have to punish him. Except, he doesn't have much time because a couple of thugs approach with every intention to cause harm. That's when Apollo realizes he's lost all of his powers. Fortunately, help comes from a girl named Meg who has strange powers that include causing the garbage to fling itself at Apollo's attackers. It turns out Meg is a demigod and Apollo confides to her that he believes he needs to overcome some sort of trial before Zeus makes him a god again. So Meg commands him to be her servant, which means he must obey her every command, and accompanies him to places and people familiar to those who have read Riordan's other works.

What I didn't expect was Riordan's humor and wit. Apollo has some wickedly funny things to say. Riordan writes from Apollo's perspective with energy and freshness, though this diminishes slightly near the end of the book. Riordan makes hilarious use of cultural references from all sorts of time periods, anywhere from ancient Greece to modern day America. Teenage readers might not catch many of these, particularly if they are not caught up on their Greek and Roman gods (which I can't say I'm that knowledgeable about myself). But there are also references to the Beatles, Babe Ruth, and Britney Spears (who might be losing her cultural currency amongst today's teenagers - "...Baby One More Time" was a huge hit before Riordan's target audience was even born). But those up on their pop culture references will find Apollo's comments amusing.

The story itself is also engaging. Too many stories today feature main characters who are mostly spectators to the conflict and action happening around them. Apollo, weak and mortal as he is, is no slouch. Much as he complains about it, he pulls his weight, though others may do more of the heavy lifting. The conflict also does not resolve itself easily. Apollo and Meg find themselves in dire situation after dire situation. Yet, a story about gods is sure to have its fair share of deus ex machina moments. This is understandable, sure, but it's also a convenient and dull plot device. You may not be very surprised by the twists and turns, but you're bound to be entertained by Apollo's ego and wit.

Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire presents two extreme views of Muslims: the jihadist who seeks to destroy non-Muslims and the politician who seeks to isolate himself from his Muslim roots. These are the only two types of Muslims able to ascend to power, in their own way, though their methods end up isolating the majority in the middle. Home Fire portrays the meeting of two Pakistani families that live in England, one with a jihadist father and one with a politician father. Kamila Shamsie shows readers the perspective of a handful of these family members to provide us insight into the misunderstanding between them. This is a novel that is at times slow, at times exciting, and at times heartbreaking, and the ending is sure to leave many readers divided.

One of these families is the Pasha family. Isma is the oldest sister, who is forced to take care of her two twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz (a girl and a boy) when her mother and grandmother pass away. Their father, Adil Pasha, had passed away years before, a jihadist dead en route to Guantanamo. The other family is the Lone family, with father Karamat serving as home secretary in England and his son Eamonn (a creative spelling of Aymen to appear less Arabic), who has a lot of money but zero ambition.

These two families know of each other from years past, but it is not until Isma's meeting with Eamonn in Massachusetts that events are set in motion. The early section comes from Isma's point of view, and being a dull character, her part is a slow read. There are some necessary background details in these first 50 pages, but they read like a flavorless literary novel. It's not until 70 pages in that the novel really comes to life, and that's because Aneeka radiates with energy that her sister, and the other characters, lack. Parvaiz is also crucial, showing the allure for a young Muslim man to join a radical organization - it provides for him much-needed masculinity and the promise of knowing his father, somebody his sisters and mother avoided talking about. It proves a dangerous allure, one that Parvaiz quickly regrets being seduced by. The middle sections of the book crackle with energy before slowing down for Karamat Lone, who is a sharp departure from the others in how unlikable he is.

The novel's end is abrupt and shocking. I'm still not sure what to think about it. In some regards it seems the perfect ending, but it almost feels too sudden, unsatisfactory. It lingers however, and I wonder if better knowledge of the source material, Sophocles' Antigone, would deepen my understanding of Shamsie's choices. It's not just the novel's ending that will linger with me, but the novel as a whole - it's that good.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes features perhaps some of the most interesting, most complex characters he has written to date. King often succeeds in writing interesting heroes, but he usually falls short in writing more complex villains - generally they are of the one-dimensional, pure evil variety. Brady Hartsfield, otherwise known as Mr. Mercedes, is not one-dimensional, though he is quite evil. He is a disgusting person, but at times King is able to elicit pity for him and show his humanity. The hero, Bill Hodges, is also human, in that while he is a competent detective, perhaps one of the best, he is not a perfect individual. Not to say he is unlikeable, but that King has succeeded in creating characters that allow the reader to see parts of themselves in, people to empathize with rather than idolize or envy. On top of that, the story is quite good - tense, thoughtful, reflective, humorous, and terrifying.

Mr. Mercedes is one of those cases Bill Hodges didn't solve. A man wearing a clown mask plowed over and killed 8 people waiting in line for a job fair. The cops found the vehicle and the owner of the vehicle, but they never discovered who was behind the wheel at the time of the murders. Now that Hodges is retired, his life is meaningless. He watches TV shows he can't stand, such as Jerry Springer and Judge Judy and Dr. Phil. Hodges also has been playing with his father's old revolver. This is the way many retired police officers and detectives go - suicide.

The Mercedes killer knows this. He sends Hodges a taunting letter. Thinking he's smarter than those he's eluded, Brady little realizes he has provided some helpful hints to Hodges. His letter also has the opposite of its intended effect - it motivates Hodges to act rather than to end his life. And so begins a cat-and-mouse game between retired police detective and psychopathic serial killer, one that grows increasingly dangerous not just for the two main actors, but for the many side characters who show up, as well as potentially many others.

Bill Hodges is a likeable hero, smart and thoughtful. We see his flawed side, such as his realization that the judgmental attitude of him and his partner may have caused them to wrong the woman who owned the Mercedes: Olivia Trelawney. And although Hodges begins to see how he wronged her, he continues to misjudge people - something we all do. King is sympathetic to those who appear "different," the so-called outsiders, even if it is that older woman who is self-righteous and nitpicks everyone else's faults. Another story, particularly an NCIS-type story, would have the reader laughing along with the main character at someone like Olivia Trelawney. But King sees the worth in a person like her. Olivia's parents, who show that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, may not get as nice a treatment, but King's sympathy is still there. Hodges, as a sort of regular every man, reveals our own flaws, that we sometimes can't get past our own prejudices and initial impressions to see the deeper side of people. Or we can, but it takes some practice.

Brady is a villain of the worst variety, but King treads surprisingly delicate with him. The story often follows Brady, in the third person limited (just as it does Hodges), and he proves himself to be cuttingly funny, especially as he charmingly says the right thing while thinking awful thoughts. He's also pitiful. King wisely avoids the origin story, but we see his home life, and it's pretty messed up. There are moments when Brady shows his humanity, especially as it involves his feelings with family, but even that grows complicated by his frustrated sexual feelings for his mom. Frustrated not in that they are not reciprocated, but that it feels wrong to feel them. Some of my complaints about King's previous work, such as Under the Dome and 11/22/63, were his thinly developed villains. It's interesting that the TV shows based on those books feature more complex versions of those villains, something especially true of Lee Harvey Oswald, whose television portrayal was much more complex and nuanced than King's portrayal. But King corrects many of his old errors in Mr. Mercedes and makes this a much more compelling read.

King's use of pop culture references and dialogue serve to make the story feel believable and realistic and very much a part of the time it was written - our time. One scene in which characters discuss two of King's well-known characters - the car from Christine and the clown from It - without naming either story goes to show just how deeply-entrenched King's own works have become in pop culture. But King does suffer from bloat, just a little. At times his dialogue goes on longer than it should, or his use of detail is a bit too much. That said, I prefer the life these details give. King could go the route of many other authors of thrillers in providing sparse, get-to-the-point details that make for a fast-paced novel but one that's but a skeleton: no flesh, no filling.

Some criticisms about the plot and character choices that readers might make come down to the fact that these characters don't make the best decisions, and that's only human. That Hodges, a retired detective, would go after a serial killer on his own is the stuff of movies, but Hodges knows it carries serious consequences and just can't help himself. There might also be consequences in him making the right decision. It's encouraging to see that as King gets older, his characters grow more complex and his stories remain just as fascinating and suspenseful and humorous to read.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

There's a scene at a doctor's office in The Handmaid's Tale that seems particularly relevant today in light of the #MeToo movement when the doctor offers to help the main character get pregnant. Many other little details are reminiscent of events happening now - the timidity of Margaret Atwood's female characters is similar to those of women who are just now opening up about sexual misconduct from famous men, years and decades later. The Handmaid's Tale should be an important, relevant novel, and yet the way that Atwood withholds details about her world, the inability to make the world believable, prevent this novel from touching on anything outside of its pages. This is a nothing much happens sort of novel that has an aura of importance, what turns out to be a deceiving aura.

The biggest problem for me is that Atwood does not do a very good job of building her dystopian world. Based on flashbacks that the main character, Offred, shares, it seems that society has changed almost overnight. Women don't work, but serve in a variety of feminine roles, such as a handmaiden, women meant for breeding purposes (and for some reason people don't have babies very easily anymore). Being set in the United States, I find it very hard to buy that this society would change so quickly, or that it would become this sort of dystopia at all. America is so entrenched in big business, which would find profits crippled if half of America's buying power was made powerless. When we do learn some backstory about what happens, it is even more preposterous. And even so, it makes little sense why anyone would want to run the world in the way it is run here. Things are done inefficiently.

Even outside the story and ideas, the writing doesn't dazzle either. Atwood makes use of simplistic, cringe-worthy similes. The style is that of dull literary writers who write for literary crowds in literary magazines - sounding important, but lacking vitality. This stems from Atwood's bad habit of telling rather than showing. Oftentimes the reader is told how somebody feels, and sometimes this doesn't make much sense in the context of the event, or it just feels forced. The dialogue doesn't help either, especially during flashbacks when Offred's mother speaks. Her words sound unreal, unlike anyway people really speak. All of this adds up to defeat the magic of the world.

The Handmaid's Tale sounds an awful lot like YA dystopia today, only with actual sex (mostly rape) and obvious sexual symbolism. The heroine sounds much more like Divergent's Tris than a 30-something year old woman. Because Atwood doesn't quite sell the world, when characters do things that break the rules of society I feel no sort of sympathy or tension that such rule breaking is supposed to evoke. In the end, this hurts any sort of larger picture message that Atwood might be aiming at. If the world doesn't make sense, then how could it apply to our real world that largely does make sense, even if it's not always fair?

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: Ready, Player One, by Ernest Cline

Don't get me wrong, Ready Player One is an enjoyable book. It is inventive in its virtual reality world, the Oasis, and in its dystopian real-world America. It is at times funny and at other times intense. But it can also be immensely dull. Ernest Cline clearly geeks out on obscure references scattered throughout the book, but his in-depth descriptions of little-known video games and Japanese TV shows bogs down the narrative. There are times when we are literally reading about a kid talking about how much fun he is having playing an old Atari game, which isn't really all that much fun to read. But part of what makes Ready Player One so interesting isn't the obscure references, but the idea of virtual reality being better than real life itself - and this is also one of its most troubling notes. One could easily conclude, upon finishing this book, that it is perfectly acceptable to devote your life to doing nothing but watching and rewatching movies and TV shows, playing and replaying video games, and doing as little as possible to interact with the outside world, a place that Cline's hero Wade Watts views as a nuisance.

It's understandable that Wade, and many others in the world, would be obsessed with this virtual world, the Oasis. The Oasis is perfect. One can access anything they'd like - books, movies, music, shows, games. It's true that exploration of the world is limited to those who have the money to travel, but the world offers ways for even poor kids to replace their real world experience by offering such services as online schooling. On top of that, the real world, in the 2040s, sucks. Global warming has made parts of the world unlivable, and much of the people, especially the poor, live in mobile homes that have been stacked upon one another, the Stacks. In such a dystopic world, it's no wonder that everyone would rather live in the utopic virtual world. It just happens to be an added bonus that the Oasis's creator, James Halliday, has recently passed and will give his multi-billion dollar fortune to whoever wins his "Easter Egg" game.

Halliday is the reason for the intense focus on 80s culture, as those hunting this Easter egg study all of his interest intently. But Halliday's interests in this culture are so narrow and obscure that most references will go unrecognized by most readers - particularly the book's target teen audience. The book will no doubt spur interest in this obscure content. I feel sorry for the characters in this book, stuck to the confines of the cultural interests of Halliday. And these characters study his interests to such obsession they probably know it better than him. Wade himself mentions watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I mean, it's an entertaining movie, but that's pretty excessive. And it seems physically impossible, particularly considering how much time Wade spends on Halliday's other interests. Coming from Wade's perspective, this way of living seems perfectly acceptable, even though Cline does attempt to moralize later, rather weakly.

Where the book is at its best are the moments when Wade is interacting with the real world. When threatened in the virtual world, there is a lack of tension, but when these threats extend to Wade's real self, the tension is palpable. Wade must also contend with the fact that although his online avatar doesn't need such things as food and sleep, his real self does. There are intriguing moments when Wade must deal with the annoying realization that failing to exercise and feed his body healthy foods may ultimately inhibit his ability to play in the Oasis. There's also a hilarious section on virtual sex/masturbation. Intimacy is not something that Wade is used to, and maybe that's why he falls in love with a famous avatar, Art3mis, without ever meeting her in person (or is it even a her?).

It's a bit ironic that the real world exploits and descriptions in a book about a virtual world are much more interesting than the virtual world bits. Cline is able to effectively paint a picture of his dystopic vision of the future with the smallest amount of description, and yet he bogs down his description of the Oasis with tedious details. The best thing the book does is to briefly remove Wade from the Oasis, where we discover just how awful the real world has become, and where we can feel real suspense. Cline seems to drool over his descriptions of massive battles that happen in the Oasis, but they lack suspense because what's at stake is the death of an avatar, which can be recreated. Cline describes these huge battles with an excitement that doesn't quite translate to real excitement since it sounds more like somebody explaining to you a sequence they played in a video game.

In the end, this book plays out almost like an anti-The Matrix - where characters are fighting for their virtual world rather than vice versa. In Ready Player One, people have given up on rescuing the real world from the plight it has fallen into, and James Halliday's creation gives people an escape, one more akin to Plato's Allegory of the Cave - a seeming paradise that is nothing more than a luxurious trap. And like Steve Jobs today, whose iPhone has changed humanity in countless ways, not all of them great, Halliday is seen as god-like. But while I do have a lot of reservations about Cline's book, it's a largely entertaining read, and creates a future and a virtual world that are very believable because they seem to be pointing to a direction we are headed, in terms of global warming and virtual reality at least. I'll be interested to see Steven Spielberg's take in the upcoming movie. Will Spielberg paint Wade's obsession in same flattering light that Cline does, or will there be more nuance?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch's Dark Matter is a well-oiled plot machine, written with the purpose of being a best seller, and at that it succeeds. And succeeds entertainingly, I might add, but only because it ingeniously makes use of science - quantum mechanics - and not because of any big ideas or strong characters. Those last two are mostly missing. Everything that happens and exists in this fast-paced novel (well, mostly everything) is for the purpose of reaching that conclusion. Crouch's prose is barren of superfluous detail, which means that there may not be a lot to contemplate from these pages long after you've closed this book, but you will be entertained while reading it.

For me, the novel doesn't really get good until a third of the way in, and even then it sputters a bit before picking up in the last quarter or so. The early parts of the book establish that Crouch is a good writer. He's an economical writer, in the vein of Dean Koontz, with one sentence paragraphs, but his prose is not terse in the vein of Hemingway - Crouch makes use of luxurious flourishes within his brief paragraphs. What stood out to me was how entertaining Crouch's prose was in the early sections of the novel. The opening chapter does its plot job of expository work. It lets us know the main character is Jason Derullo, a professor who sacrificed big money and more important work for a family. His wife, Daniela, has similarly sacrificed the life of a successful artist for her family. The two of them have a son, Charlie. And Jason's former best friend, Ryan, is out celebrating the big science award that could have been Jason's had he chosen a different path. Funny how books and movies portray life in such black and white terms. You either have a perfect family or career success. There's no in between.

Anyway, what these opening moments do a good job of is establishing key plot points. What they do not do a great job at is developing characters with any depth. Though Crouch makes some attempts at giving Daniela depth, he largely falls short. That Jason madly loves her, even after fifteen years of marriage, is a key to the story's credibility, but in that Crouch also falls short. These characters are mainly names, representations of ideas - Daniela the beautiful, loving wife, and Charlie, the son, the product of their love. Jason can't be quantified so simply because he's the main character of the story, but he isn't blessed with much depth either, despite having a brilliant scientific mind.

The plot wheels turn as, after describing his family life, Jason becomes abducted and knocked unconscious by somebody whose identity is fairly obvious from the get go, but Jason won't realize it until two-thirds of the way through. He wakes up in a world that's very similar, but different. Any fan of science fiction would realize what's happened to Jason right away, but it takes the novel about one hundred pages to finally explain it. And it's a shame, because between Jason waking up in a different world and realizing what's going on, the novel sputters. When it does get into the science parts, all of a sudden the novel comes to life. It becomes enjoyable for a while, stalls again, and then in the finale inserts a new twist that makes it enjoyable yet again. For the ingenious ways that Crouch makes use of quantum mechanics in his plot, I would say this is an entertaining read, and a quick one. If you read this as just an entertainment, you'll find it enjoyable. The problems come when you expect a little more depth, more contemplation of bigger ideas, because here Crouch fails to deliver.

First off, Crouch's prose is a double-edged sword. Writing all of those one sentence paragraphs helps it move along at a brisk pace and keeps the pages turning, as its meant to. Yet, it has the drawback of preventing strong character development, and it also hinders the emotional impact of the story. When Jason is first abducted, a great writer would make the reader feel afraid. I did not feel afraid for Jason. Perhaps it's because his character wasn't made real enough for me, but it could also be that I could see the rails upon which the plot was placed. The fact that Jason decided to walk back home the long way, the more dangerous way, made it all too obvious. I felt I was being played, and any emotional urgency was removed. Ditto the love Jason and Daniela feel. Crouch provides some mixed messages about how Jason feels about his marriage early on, such that when Jason decides later that Daniela is his purpose in life, it's not believable. Crouch's economical prose did not allow Daniela to become fleshed out as a person.

In terms of plot, understanding that Jason wants nothing more than to be with Daniela - his Daniela - is key to enjoying what happens. Failing to add much complexity to the character of Daniela does not allow the reader to connect with her, or Jason's desire to be with her, very strongly. There is some attempt early on at making her human. She has bouts of depression, but not much more than that. Later in the novel she turns into little more than a strikingly beautiful woman, an object of desire. She does as the plot requires - trusts rather than asks questions.

In terms of bigger ideas, Crouch largely leaves these off the table as well. There are moments, understandably, of identity crisis. When seeing other versions of yourself, of your world, your apt to wonder who you are. Outside of identity, Crouch does not dig too deeply into the complexities of human thought and feeling. In Jason's despairing situation, for example, he never wavers in the fact that he wants Daniela back - his Daniela. This seems to position Crouch into suggesting that there are soul mates, and that once one finds this true love nothing could get in the way of it. This, although it is known that people, in desperate situations, are likely to revert to survival instincts. Jason is made too pure of heart to accept the offer of love from his companion on his bizarre journey, or to even give it any thought. To go in that direction would take a braver writer.

Still, I think most people would be willing to accept the premise of the novel at its surface and enjoy it as the thriller it is. And it is an entertaining thriller. My review points out many of its shortcomings, but as a plot-driven sci-fi action story, it is well-done, with ingenious imaginings of what might happen if quantum technology is used as it is here. I find that the novel is a great medium to teach quantum mechanics, the basics at least, to a broader population. Crouch explains it in understandable ways, and even adds a little to my understanding of it. William Sleator's The Last Universe is another novel that does a nice job of explaining quantum. While Sleator's novel does not feature the ingenious plotting of Crouch's novel, one thing Sleator succeeds at that Crouch does not is taking a complex look at the human element. Sleator also takes bigger risks. If somehow the two authors could merge into one, they might write one tremendous novel based on quantum mechanics.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: Into the Dream, by William Sleator

Probably the most powerful takeaway from William Sleator's, Into the Dream, is his insightful look into how a person views others and themselves, and how those views may change. The telepathic link between two characters serves to illuminate this even more strongly. While readers may be intrigued by the sci-fi/fantasy of the telepathy and UFOs, or horrified by the recurring dream had by the main character, Paul, and foreboding something terrible, or enraptured by the pseudo romantic comedy as you follow the conflicted relation between Paul and the second main character, Francine, it is the way the two characters change in their regard for one another that is most intriguing and insightful. Shortcomings aside, there is plenty to admire in this short YA novel.

Paul has a nightmare that he doesn't understand, except that it makes him more and more frightened each time he views it. It feels so real, like a warning. In the dream a young boy appears to be in danger, but doesn't realize it, as hulking beasts surround him. Each time Paul dreams it, he discovers something new. The problem is, nobody understands him when he explains this dream. A dream is always more meaningful to the dreamer than it is to somebody listening to you explain the dream. It frustrates Paul the way his friends and family either shrug off the dream as if to say, "It's just a dream," or the way they try to interpret it by discussing how it shows Paul's mood or state of mind. It's more than that to Paul. It's real, and soon he withdraws from the world because nobody will listen to or understand him.

Until Francine, that is. Francine is a girl in Paul's school, but the sort of girl who doesn't interest Paul - a "silly" girl. She hangs out with other "silly" girls, girls who aren't interested in academics like Paul is. Francine is the type of girl Paul would never talk to if it weren't for a special connection (and here it's tough to avoid spoilers). They discover a telepathic link to each other, catching occasional glimpses into each other's thoughts or mood or life. Each time Paul learns something new about her, he grows to like her a little more. Seeing a new part of her, such as where she lives, catching a glimpse of her family's poverty compared to his life of luxury, in comparison, takes him away from his own egotistical world and allows him to empathize with Francine. The same is true of her. While telepathy is not possible in the real world, Sleator is showing how people can let go of animosity if only they take time to understand one another. When nobody understands him, Paul pulls away from the world, but when he finds somebody who grows to understand him and who he grows to understand, he becomes happier and better connected. The way Sleator shows this is quite powerful.

While Sleator nails the human element, especially in that middle school age range, the plot staggers at the end. For about three-quarters of the book, the plot moves along nicely, with twists and turns that keep the reader guessing and the pages turning. It's peppered with humor, particularly the tense exchanges between Paul and Francine. And the reveals get more and more interesting, seeming to lead up to something big. I don't want to spoil anything, but more than likely you will find the ending disappointing, anti-climatic, like Sleator could have done more with his short little novel but ran out of steam far too early. The ending makes sense, of course, and fits in the world of magical realism that Sleator establishes, but for all the hype and tension the end fizzles rather than erupts. And yet, in many ways this is a book that will stay with me for some time to come.