Monday, March 14, 2016

Guest Post: Poetry by Samantha White

I'd like to share two poems by Samantha White, a couple of poems that struck me by their imagery and truth. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Here is the first poem:

Lord of the Flies
The beast that lurks in the corners
Is ready to spring any time.
The pain and all of the sorrows
Has labored the lord of the flies.
Like animals haunted and scared
We strive to look savage and wight.
How can we this possibly bare,
If poison is just in the mind?

And here is the second poem:

Image Disappearing
My image – no, the picture! –
Lies deeply… It’s growing
To reach the highness of expectations,
To fulfill my desire of perfection,
To correspond to my measures, if there are any.
It begins to straighten,
It still has curves, but it becomes linear –
And I STILL don’t like it.
I want it to be my creation, not someone’s.
Influences from the outside smirch it so badly.
Here it comes… at last… He’s gaining some unique flesh.
And, finally, He’s disappearing…

Samantha White – freelance writer from You may find me on Twitter and Facebook


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Review: Spirit Animals Book 1: Wild Born, by Brandon Mull

While definitely aimed at the middle school/young adult audience, with its animal themes and Pokemon-like creature bonding (though without catching them all), Spirit Animals has a surprisingly mature story and complex characters. Brandon Mull tells his story through alternating perspectives and gives each character enough depth and personality that they are actually compelling. Most young adult authors don't take such care to develop even their main character that it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between those in stories using alternating perspectives (I'm looking at you, Veronica Roth). What this does is makes the story a much more engaging read not just for the young adult audience, but an adult audience as well. While what eventually unfolds is your usual young adult adventure fare, this was a story I found difficult to put down.

In the world of Spirit Animals, people have a chance to bond with a spirit animal once they hit a certain age, about 11. It could be any kind of animal, or, what nobody wants, no bond may be made. The animal appears from nothingness, perhaps the spiritual world, and becomes attached to the person who summoned it. This story line certainly has a strong appeal. Everyone craves a bond that will forever attach them to another being, but especially with an animal that has the capability of unconditional love. And boys and girls alike can have fun imagining what sort of animal would be their spirit animal, whether a cute and cuddly creature, or a large and powerful one.

The story centers around four characters, who are all gradually introduced. Conor is but a lowly servant, but when he summons a wolf as his spirit animal, suddenly his station in life grows. Abeke, too, is from a poor family, where there has been a severe drought, and she is shamed when her secret hunt of an antelope leads her into trouble with her father for leaving the safety of the community. She, though, summons a leopard and brings rain to her community. Meilin, of the four the only one from a wealthy family, is trained in martial arts, something her nation called Zhong does not usually allow women to do. She hopes she will summon a spirit animal who can enhance her abilities, but is disappointed to find she has summoned a panda bear. Anyone who has watched Kung Fu Panda will realize she should not underestimate her spirit animal. Last is Rollan, an orphan boy jailed for aiding a robbery, though he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. In his jail cell, he is discovered to be of age and given a nectar to test if he has a spirit animal bond, and he summons a falcon.

What these four have in common is that they have summoned the four fallen beasts, which are the only four of the 13 Great Beasts to have been killed. These four don't have the power of their Great status yet, but the fact these beasts have been summoned at around the same time means that something big is about to happen. I won't reveal anything more, but as you probably might guess, something evil has arisen that only the power of these Great Beasts can stop.

Brandon Mull writes his story with only as much detail as is needed. The world-building is second to plot and character development, and the main characters seem to be learning about the mysteries of the Spirit Animal world at the same time as the readers. Aimed at a younger audience, this is probably the most effective way to approach the material. The series that I can think most closely relates to this one is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. In that series, boys and girls also attempt to bond with another being, a dragon. The difference is that they can see the dragons before the bond happens. If you like McCaffrey's more detailed world-building, you may be disappointed with the less-detailed approach of Mull, but I assume more details will come up in later books.

Part of what makes this fun is that just because the animal has bonded with the human does not mean the relationship between the two is perfect. The humans must learn to get along with their bonded animals, and this bond is a bit more complex than it seem. For example, one test of the bond is if the human can get the animal into its passive state, which turns the animal into a tattoo on any part of the person's body. This, though, does not necessarily indicate a strong bond. Meilin, for example, gets her panda into its passive state quicker than any of the boys, but her disappointment over the natural passivity of the animal impedes her connection with the animal in other ways, such as in utilizing the powers it grants her as a person. The personalities of each animal also affects their bonds. Rollan is very frustrated with his falcon because of how distant it is, but perhaps an animal like a falcon needs a human who is able to understand its need for such distance, rather than a human who needs lots of attention.

While the spirit animals seem to take a nod to Pokemon, in that the animals fight one another and bond with their human, there are also elements of animes such as Dragonball Z and Naruto, in that the main characters are capable of great powers and of increasing their powers through training and through stronger bonds with their spirit animals. The novel teases the reader with the potential for these moments, just as those animes also tease their viewers, and one can see the potential for excitement as the main characters increase their powers with their bonded animals. We see this sort of power mostly from already trained individuals, such as Tarik, whose bond with his otter gives him surprising speed, and Abeke, who most fully, of the main four, bonds with her animal.

The novel grows at its weakest when it reaches the inevitable battle at the end, though it invests enough in the characters and world to make us care about the outcome and even about characters who might die. There's even some mystery, leaving some questions at the end about who to truly trust. Book One tells the reader enough detail to map out where the series will go and sates our thirst enough to make us want to read more. My concern is that this series utilizes the approach of a different author per book. Mull has done such a great job that I worry another author might not be able to match his ability. Maggie Stiefvater, another author I've heard of but haven't read, wrote Book Two (and I admit, the preview I read of Book Two does make me eager to read it). Regardless of how good the series will turn out to be, Wild Born is a very entertaining story that both adults and teenagers can enjoy, due to the quality of writing and character development, and a unique and cool world Mull has helped create.

***Note: This is free on iBooks.***

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review: Crispin: At the Edge of the World, by Avi

Crispin: At the Edge of the World is the second book in Avi's trilogy about his young character, Crispin, and follows directly after the events in Crispin: The Cross of Lead. The first two books in the trilogy (I have not yet read the third) are very engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction. They are more realistic than many young adult books, and Avi takes care to ensure Crispin is a product of the time the story takes place, and not a person with unrealistically modern ideals. There are themes of religion, tolerance, politics, and coming-of-age, among others, all richly probed without bogging down the plot. If you have not had a chance to read The Cross of Lead, you should do so, and if you have, do not hesitate to read the sequel.

Spoilers below for those who have not read The Cross of Lead.

Even after successfully escaping the hold of John Aycliffe, Crispin and his friend-protector, Bear, are still not in the clear. The two run into trouble when John Ball's Brotherhood, of which Bear was a part, believes Bear betrayed them and they attack, wounding him with an arrow. Crispin and Bear escape and hide, worried the Brotherhood will continue to hunt them down. The arrow wound weakens Bear immensely, but he and Crispin are fortunate to find a medicine woman named Aude with a young girl named Troth.

Crispin, whose isolated Christian upbringing has left him ignorant of other worldviews, distrusts Aude and Troth. Aude, he believes, is a witch, since she worships a God different from Crispin's, and Troth has a cleft lip, which Crispin believes may be the mark of the Devil. However, with Bear delirious from his wound, he realizes they are their only chance of survival. In the time he spends with them, he also begins to grow closer with the young girl, and Troth, in turn, ceases to keep her cleft lip covered, a sign of trust.

Crispin, I mention, is ignorant, with a small worldview, but I don't want readers to think that this is a criticism of his Christian upbringing. Avi offers no criticism to religious views, and in fact Crispin's ignorance is not a criticism at all, but an observation. Access to world news and events is at our fingertips now, with smartphones and social media, but in Crispin's 14th century world, isolation is easy and news hard to come by. Living in an isolated community requires certain prejudices to be developed for a sense of security, and for Crispin to come across a pagan woman is a breach of these secure prejudices. Bear, however, serves as a teacher figure, one who teaches tolerance and empathy, and Crispin is an eager learner. He wants to be a good person, and sometimes being a good person means challenging your own views.

Just like in The Cross of Lead, there is plenty of adventure and some surprising violence (this book has some surprisingly gory violence towards the end). A lot of the conflict revolves around the fact that Bear is aging and his wound keeps him from full strength, meaning Crispin is constantly struggling with the realization he needs to step up in his duties. That said, I like the fact that, unlike other YA fiction, Crispin is not the one who solves all of the problems and he does not always have the best solution. He learns from Bear, and he also attempts to distinguish between when he should heed Bear's commands or disobey them. With its well-developed, engaging characters and plot, and an ending that will be sure to tug at heart-strings, I highly recommend At the Edge of the World. And if you haven't read The Cross of Lead, start there. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: Boltzmon!, by William Sleator

Boltzmon! is a very strange story, fast-paced in the YA fashion without pausing to give much thought to its science, but with an ending that turns out to be surprisingly poignant. While the title sounds like the name of a Pokemon that shoots out lightning bolts, this is actually a much more mature story than the title gives it credit for. Along with its science-y themes, the book touches upon family, bullying, and self-reflection as well, and these play out in surprisingly sophisticated fashion. While the title may be silly, this is one book you shouldn't judge by its cover. It's quite good.

The story is told from the perspective of an eleven-year old boy named Chris, and at the heart of his life's problems is his older sister Lulu, who is bent on making him miserable. Not only does she bully him at home, but now that they both go to the same middle school, she spreads rumors about him and causes other kids at the school to bully him as well. Chris doesn't know what he did to deserve this treatment. He spends his free time at home mapping an imaginary world called Arteria. In this world the pirates like to target and kill blonde-haired girls. Chris relishes in imagining his own sister being tormented in Arteria.

It turns out that Arteria is a real place, as a chance meeting with a being called boltzmon reveals. Boltzmon, as it explains itself, is a piece of a black hole that has the knowledge of everything it has absorbed. It can also bend space and time, which means that it comes from the future, where it has already absorbed Earth and even the planet of Arteria. It knows that Chris will be dead very soon if he does not visit the Time Temples in Arteria. Oh, and boltzmon's very unstable. When Chris or somebody says something that perturbs it, the boltzmon transports itself and Chris through space and time - to 40 years in the future on the planet of Arteria.

Thus the story jumps back and forth, mostly, between Earth and Arteria. Though the boltzmon is unstable, it seems to have a purpose, one that's not so clear early on. Chris takes the form of an Arterian in Arteria, and the boltzmon takes the form of whatever or whomever it pleases. For example, in the first trip, the boltzmon is a cranky old woman who absolutely needs to sit down, but a middle-aged wealthy blonde woman refuses to move her bag in order to make room for the old woman. This perturbs the boltzmon to no end, and the boltzmon seems intent on annoying the blonde by any means possible. This blonde becomes an important part of the Arteria plot, and Chris begins to assume that she is actually his sister, Lulu, forty years in the future.

The story hinges upon the mood of the boltzmon, but though the boltzmon is very unstable, its motives are much clearer and more coherent than they originally seem. The book, therefore, is not just a random series of adventures, but a fluid whole. We travel through time a little bit, as Chris witnesses the means of his death and realizes the way to correct it. In the end, while it would be simple for the book to create an easy villain, it's much smarter than that. While bullying is at the heart of the villainy in the novel, Chris also needs to learn to stand up for himself. The human element is much more effective than the scientific, as Sleator explains the science behind his boltzmon with as few details as possible in order to still give a good idea of what it is. In forcing his characters to reflect about themselves, on how they grew to be who they are, he also provides a lesson in the power of self-reflection. While the adventure leading to the end is comical and fun, the ending is very poignant and certainly worth the craziness.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke

What will happen when, if, humans make contact with an alien species has been the subject of lots of science fiction books, movies, TV shows, video games, and the like. There is a lot of room for creativity here. For one, how these aliens will look is up to the imagination. For another, what level of technology they have attained may vary. Finally, how both the aliens and humans will react to one another can range from hostile to friendly. In most such stories, alien contact ends in violence. Arthur C. Clarke takes the exact opposite route in Childhood's End. Contact with aliens ends in peace on Earth rather than violence. This has implications itself, as Clarke describes throughout the course of the novel, but the ending will leave you with more food for thought than most other alien invasion stories out there.

These aliens are named the Overlords, for they appear to be acting as lords over the human race. Once they arrive and hover in the skies, people find no reason for war or violence. Indeed, the Overlords intervene in nonviolent ways to help influence humans to stop fighting. In one instance, they take away sunlight from a region momentarily to show there are other means than violence to show one's power. Only one man has any contact whatsoever with the Overlords, and his name is Stormgren, Secetary-General of the United Nations. Every now and then he rides up in the Overlord ship and speaks to Karellen, known to humans as the Supervisor. Stormgren never sees Karellen or any of the Overlords, but he trusts Karellen's purpose. There are small groups of people who rebel against the Overlords in their small ways, and one of the major complaints is that the Overlords do not show themselves. Karellen satisfies them by saying humans will get to see the Overlords in fifty years. A small satisfaction, but he says humans aren't yet ready to see them. Once they do reveal themselves, Karellen's rationale makes perfect sense.

The book jumps ahead in time, when people have flying cars and some of the Overlords freely mingle with certain humans and share technology. Two important characters are George and his wife Jean. At a party of a wealthy eccentric named Rupert they meet an Overlord named Rashaverak, who is reading Rupert's library of books on the paranormal. Why he is studying the paranormal becomes apparent only at the end. Rupert pulls out a Ouija board with mixed reactions from his guests. Rupert's brother-in-law, Jan, is purely a scientist at heart, but on a whim he asks the location of the Overlord's planet's star, and the Ouija board spells it out. The significance of these details become known only much later into the novel.

Like Clarke's Songs from a Distant Earth, the science is fascinating, but the human drama: not so much. While Clarke doesn't make any of his characters overtly atheist, they seem to view human sexual relations as being open to multiple partners. This is apparent as George ogles Rupert's beautiful new wife and seems to have an inkling that a relation with her is possible, not that it ever comes down to that. The female characters play minor roles when compared to the males. Although at one point Rashaverak confides with Karellen that Jean might be the most important person on the planet, the events at the end contradict that statement and it doesn't come to fruition. When the story focuses on any human characters, it's on the male ones, and even the Overlords, though sexless, seem male.

It's the bigger ideas that make this novel such an interesting read. While the Overlords do bring peace, that peace comes at a cost. Humans have no need to create art anymore, and life has grown dull. The Overlords act as a Big Brother entity, sometimes intervening when humans are misbehaving, and sometimes, such as when one country launches a nuclear missile at an Overlord ship, they do nothing, which is just as effective. The psychological toll is immense. People always wonder if the Overlords will do anything in reaction to bad behavior. It's almost as though the Overlords are god-like beings, or at the very least a manifestation of Santa Clause, but their presence is both felt and seen with inconclusive evidence.

The goal of the book is to learn of the Overlords' purpose, and the book provides some red herrings so that you might think you know what will happen in the end, but it's pretty unlikely you will guess correctly. The conclusion is fascinating and terrifying all at once. Clarke puts readers in a position to wonder about the future and what it would mean for humanity to be placed in the role it finds itself at the end of this novel. True, the ending will also require some suspension of disbelief, as Clarke treads off the path of his more realistic sci-fi elements, but even Clarke admits in the introduction of the book that this is a work of fiction and what happens does not necessarily reflect his own views. If you can look past some of the silliness, you will find an intriguing novel with fascinating ideas and an ending that is hard to stop pondering long after you finish reading the novel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt

I love it when an author comes with a unique idea and pulls it off perfectly. Keturah and Lord Death is a dark fairy tale with memorable characters, romance, death, and storytelling. On its surface it reads like a simple tale of a girl who seduces death, but this setup also allows for so many in-depth interpretations of the novel about love and about death. Whether you read it simply for its beautiful story or you analyze its deeper meanings, or do both, you will find a powerful and thoughtful tale well worth the read.

A young woman named Keturah wanders alone into the woods, pursuing a mysterious hart that enchants her. She ends up lost and, after several days, sees a man approach her. This man, she knows, is Lord Death, and she speaks with him, trying to win herself more time. Something about Keturah charms Lord Death, and he pleads with her to sacrifice the life of another from her village, Tide-by-Rood, so that she can live. But Keturah is too selfless to allow that to happen. She instead goes for another tactic. She begins to tell Lord Death a story about love, a story that's very much about herself, but she refuses to end it. She strikes a bargain. She will finish the story if only Lord Death allows her another day. Lord Death ups the ante. If she can find true love, of which he is doubtful, he will allow her to continue her life. If not, he will take her as his bride.

Keturah has other motives than her own survival. From her conversation with him, she learns that her entire village will be wiped out by the plague. She needs to warn Lord Temsland so that he can take steps to prevent the plague from setting a foothold in the village. When she returns to the village, she finds many of the villagers suspicious of her. They believe she wandered into the company of fairies and many have begun to avoid her company. Her grandmother, who she lives with, is of course happy to have her back. And only her two friends, Beatrice and Gretta, learn the truth, and they're happy to help Keturah find her true love. Of the matter of the plague, Keturah decides not to tell her friends, but she attempts schedule a one-on-one meeting with Lord Temsland's son, John, in order to tell him.

Many of the characters in the novel have one special trait that helps identify them, but author Martine Leavitt provides added depth to each character as well. Beatrice is a great singer, and Gretta does a great job of stitching. Keturah believes Beatrice would be happy if she married Choirmaster, a lonely man, while Gretta would be happy with Tailor, a widowed man with children. However, both Beatrice and Gretta insist on those men being Keturah's true love. There is also Ben Marshall as a possible suitor, but to win his heart one has to win Best Cook. The best cook in Tide-by-Rood has always been Padmoh, who Keturah believes is better suited to Ben, but she also realizes he may be the easiest to win her way out of an early death if she can only wow the judges at the fair. The one man Keturah doesn't think of as her potential true love, however, is probably the one who's the most obvious match for her - the kind John Temsland.

In the end, there are really only two choices for Keturah's true love, and you'll probably guess who those two are pretty early on, but who she'll end up with is another matter. Of course, who Keturah will end up with isn't the sole point of the novel. Keturah is such a strong character because she isn't wholly concerned about love. She has concerns about the well-being of her friends and of her fellow villagers. She's a strong, fearless person, a beautiful woman who is more than just a beauty. She knows how to tell stories so fascinating as to woo Lord Death. She's smart, and despite all these qualities, she isn't conceited or self-centered. I know what you're thinking, she sounds just the opposite of so many young adult heroines out there, and that's partly what makes this such an engaging story.

This is a very powerful read, and as you reach the end you realize it's much more than about a girl seeking true love. In personifying death as a man, Leavitt leads us to consider one's relationship with death and coming to terms with death as an inevitable part of our lives. Part of what inspired her to write this story, as she writes in her Afterword, is that her own sister died at the age of eleven. The love and sorrow that Leavitt feels for her sister translates on the page in the form of Leavitt's powerful, evocative language. The amazing thing about the story is that one can read it as a straight romance and still feel the power of the story just as much as one who reads it as an allegory. To achieve what Leavitt does in this book is a difficult, impressive, and very satisfying accomplishment.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: The Martian, Andy Weir

There are two things that make The Martian, by Andy Weir, such a popular novel: Weir's sense of humor and his attention to technical details. Weir fires off many quotable one-liners that are laugh out loud funny, and in between he provides grueling technical detail into his main character's ingenious methods of survival. This is a novel with a simple premise - a man's quest to survive alone on Mars - and is told with realistic detail. And yet, Weir's storytelling chops are lacking. Yes he has a great sense of humor that helps break up the novel's many boring passages, but his love for the technical details of the Mars mission harm his overall story. When you break it down, there is very little plot, little to no character development, and hardly any philosophical speculation on the situation Weir's main character finds himself in.

Weir jumps straight into the heart of his novel. The crew of Ares 3, a Mars mission, believes one of its members, Mark Watney, is dead. We know this because Watney writes it in his journal. A dust storm jeopardizes the mission and heavy winds cause an antenna wire to impale Watney while the team was getting ready to abort the mission. The team loses contact with him and desperately searches for him, but with time running out, they have no choice but to leave him. Watney finds himself alone with no way to contact Earth on a landscape that is uninhabitable. He must use his ingenuity as a botanist and engineer to figure out how to survive.

The novel is all about calculations. Watney knows that NASA has planned a series of Mars trips about every four years, so his first calculations are how to survive until Ares 4. He has lots of rations, especially since his six-man crew has been reduced to one, but not enough to last until Ares 4. As a botanist, however, he figures out how to grow potatoes (yes, on Mars). But to grow enough to ensure his survival requires turning his entire living space into a garden, along with the spaces of the two vehicles left behind. Watney explains in his journal entries all of his methods and calculations in explicit detail.

This becomes a formula for the story. Watney runs into a problem, some of them having no immediate impact, and others having enormous immediate impact. Watney then explains exactly how he goes about solving said problem - what methods he uses, what materials he uses, what quantities he uses, how he tests his methods, how he modifies his methods based on how his tests go, and how those methods work out. I know there are plenty of people who will enjoy all of the trouble Weir goes through to explain all of these details because, from what I understand, they are very accurate and probable. And yet, they do not make for good storytelling. The story stalls during these moments. We know, as the reader, that since the book is written as journal entries, Watney will be fine because he survived to write that entry. This takes the suspense out of the story. It felt like he was writing a how-to book rather than a thrilling novel.

Watney isn't the only character in the story, but he is the only compelling one. Weir does a good job of creating a unique individual in Watney, and it's Watney's sense of humor that sets him apart. Weir has a keen ear for the sorts of humorous memes that get passed around social media, and that's largely the sort of the humor Watney has. I laughed out loud during a lot of moments of the book. In fact, I think it would be safe to classify this as a work of comedy more than a thriller. And it's this humor, I think, that is the biggest draw to the book. Reading the Kindle version, you can find all of the novel's funniest passages by searching for the most highlighted sections.

Watney is not the only character in the novel, and, in fact, there are quite a lot of characters who show up. There is the head of the NASA operations on Mars, Venkat Kapoor, along with other NASA characters such as Mitch and Teddy and Mindy and Annie, and then there are the crew members of the Ares 3 mission: Lewis, Johannsen, Beck, Vogel, and Martinez. The problem is, all of these characters are one-dimensional. To be honest, of the Ares 3 crew, I had trouble remembering who was a man or who was a woman, and when an apparent romance is revealed, I hardly cared, and when each crew member has a chat with a loved one on Earth, it was just a waste of pages. These characters are integral to the story, yes, but are treated almost as extensions of Watney's character, wisecracks all of them.

One of the joys of reading science fiction is its speculative nature. The Martian will have you speculate, yes, on survival on Mars, but not with any philosophical depth. Its speculation is limited just to Watney's own ingenuity. The greats in the science fiction realm love to tackle the big issues and get you thinking about big ideas. Watney loves to crack jokes, but doesn't take any time to contemplate his situation, even though he does have plenty of time. All he does is watch and rewatch seventies TV shows left behind on a crewmate's USB drive. One of the values of reading good science fiction is what it makes you think about, and with The Martian, it's not a whole lot. If you want a simple tale that will make you laugh a lot, this is an entertaining read, and if you love to talk shop with your friends, you'll fall in love with Mark Watney's method of narration. Just don't expect a great book.