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.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin

To read The Tombs of Atuan, you might not realize that this is the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle (of course, it does help that it says so on the book cover). Only halfway into the book is it clear, when the hero from the original book, Ged, shows up. The Tombs of Atuan introduces a new character who is just as compelling as Ged was in A Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin also uses her fantasy platform to make a comment on women's place in the world, as her main character, Arha, has power, but it's much more symbolic than real. The Tombs of Atuan may not be as compelling as A Wizard of Earthsea, but its story nonetheless has plenty of great moments and the novel furthers the story and world-building of the Earthsea Cycle.

As a reminder about some key information from A Wizard of Earthsea, it is in true names that wizards find their power. However, there is a powerful force that can overcome the power of wizards because it has no name. These are the Nameless Ones, and those who live on the island of Atuan, where the Nameless Ones reside, serve them. This is where Arha comes in. Her true name, as Ged later reveals, is Tenar, but she is known as Arha because she is the reincarnation of the Arch-Priestess of Atuan. When the Arch-Priestess dies, those in the service of the Nameless Ones seek out a girl born on the same day of her death and this girl is raised to become her replacement, as she is seen as her reincarnated form. Arha means "The Eaten One," which represents what happens to the soul of the Arch-Priestess.

Arha, however, is not quite as obedient as the Nameless Ones' servants would like. She is full of questions and curiosities and seems much more eager to learn about her station and her domain than her own teachers. These teachers are Thar and Kossil, two high priestesses who are older and supposedly wiser, but have less power. Or so it seems. Arha learns some truths. Though she basks in her own power, she learns there are limitations. For one, the god-king who rules the islands is, technically, below her in stature. But in reality, the god-king would not follow her commands. Also, the Arch-Priestess is easily replaced due to the fact she reincarnates as another, perhaps more malleable, girl. The high priestess, Kossil, seems to despise Arha, and Arha soon feels there is more danger in her angering Kossil than in Kossil angering Arha.

Ged, who hides his true name behind his identity as Sparrowhawk, enters the Tombs of Atuan to rob them. These Tombs are where the Nameless Ones reside. The Tombs themselves are dark and no light is allowed. They contain the entrance to the prison, where prisoners are sacrificed to the Nameless Ones, as well as the Labyrinth, which contains treasure. Arha discovers Ged only because she visits the Tombs and the Labyrinth so frequently as a place of refuge. She realizes right away that Ged is a wizard. Wizards are hated by those on the island, especially Kossil. They are said to be full of deceit and lies. In the treasury of the Labyrinth is an artifact, half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. This is what Ged seeks when Arha traps him in the Labyrinth. Instead of killing him, as she should, she keeps him alive because she is curious and because she also seems to revel in her power over him.

The Tombs of Atuan begins slowly before Arha transforms the story into something compelling. Watching her grow as an arrogant, rebellious-minded youth and respond to her situation makes for an entertaining read, and the world-building is intriguing as well. When Ged appears, halfway into the book, the story gets even better, as we watch Arha struggling to avoid doing the evil thing her faith requires of her. She keeps Ged alive and trapped because she wants to know more about the world, and Ged seems to see some goodness in her.

This book focuses largely on the development of Arha rather than the continuation of Ged's storyline. It's interesting to see the same Ged who in the last book became a powerful being, and who we know will become the world's most powerful wizard, reduced to powerlessness in this book. This allows the book to focus on Arha's development instead of Ged's, but it also shows us how even the most powerful of beings can be humbled and made human. That said, this book just does not stand up to the original. The original had very memorable moments of power and character growth. There are no earth-shattering moments in this book to match those in the original, and the climax comes too early, with the last two chapters serving largely as an epilogue of sorts. I do enjoy the series so far, but I have to admit that I'm not sure it has aged well. In today's fantasy/sci-fi climate, readers do enjoy the political side of world-building, but they also like action, and in that regard this book does not deliver. It requires patience, and if you have the patience you will find this an enjoyable read.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Review: Good the Goblin Queen, by Becket

When it comes to whimsy, there are limits. A little bit of whimsy can be a lot of fun, but too much can be exhausting. Becket, in Good the Goblin Queen, takes whimsy way too far. The story plays out like Dr. Seuss on steroids, with made up words and invented rhymes, all which play no role but to add to the endless whimsy. While the story has a fun concept - a girl who wishes to be queen is transformed into a goblin so she can be queen of the goblins - the author takes a heavy-handed approach to its humor by whacking the reader upside the head with the countless whimsical inventions - as many as can be fit into a single sentence, page, and book. While some children may find it amusing, the length of the book may put this out of reach of those who would likely enjoy it, and older audiences will grow bored with the lack of grounding and structure.

To begin the whimsy, a human girl named Good is adopted by a pair of orangutans. She is not happy with herself or her family. Her parents behave just like orangutans. They party all the time and rip up her books so she has to bury them in the backyard to keep them safe. Oh, and there's the bananas. That's the sole diet of Good's orangutan family. Clever? Somehow her father is elected President of the United States, and here's where things seem to take on a form of allegory. Does the orangutan president represent any one particular president? Since this book was written in 2015, could that president be President Obama? Could there be a poorer choice of comparison to a black president? Perhaps Becket is simply being whimsical, but part of me doubts it. I think he was just using poor taste.

Good happens to see a whole bunch of shooting stars one night and wishes upon them that she could be queen. Wishing on stars is apparently illegal, so when the secret service alerts the president that somebody wished on what was likely over one hundred stars, Good runs away. She runs into a ghost named Mr. Fuddlebee, who gives her a device called a Crinomatic that will make her wish come true. It does just that, but transforms her into a goblin, but before she can reverse it, the Crinomatic breaks. A group of seven goblins approaches her and recognizes her as the goblin queen. They then vow to take her back to the Goblin Kingdom.

The rest of the story is a series of adventures with the goal of reaching the Goblin Kingdom. The characters run into such conflicts as Nightmare Hollow, a giant, gremlins, and Old Queen Crinkle, queen of the vampires. These conflicts are largely resolved by Mr. Fuddlebee as a deus ex machina figure, or by the fact that the villains give the heroes endless amounts of time to solve their dilemma, such as the giant who waits for the heroes to repair the Crinomatic that will save them before deciding to step on them. All of this is told with lots of energy and humor that would, as I said before, amuse a younger audience, but just doesn't work for teens or adults.

Becket's dialogue and his writing set a tone of Dr. Seuss whimsy. The goblins always confuse big words that Good uses, in a way that would be comical to young readers. Sometimes this is done inventively, and it does give the novel some charm. The need to rhyme so frequently grows tiresome, and suggests an inventiveness without purpose. For example: "There were biggle goblins and sniggle goblins. There were snuggle goblins and huggle goblins; snicker goblins and bicker goblins; nag goblins, lag goblins, and bag goblins." The use of such nonsense words seems to provide no purpose other than to show that the author was in an inventive mood and that he enjoyed making things up on the fly. And that's how large segments of this book felt - simply made up along the way rather than developed organically.

But this is a parable of sorts. Underneath all the whimsy there is an important message the author would like to impart, and that's why I feel like the comparison of an orangutan to Obama is on purpose. At the end of the story, Good is faced with a dilemma that she herself cannot conquer, but from a book she learns some wisdom: to ask for help from DIOS. DIOS is an acronym for Dimensionally Intelligent Operating System, and it exists everywhere. All Good has to do is ask for help. DIOS, if you know Spanish, also stands for God. The message the book wants to communicate is that all you have to do is ask for help from God, or some other Dimensionally Intelligent Operating System, and everything will work out in the end. If you already believe this is true, you don't need to read a whimsical book about a goblin queen to know it, and if you don't believe this is true, the book is simply a waste of time.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review: The Wreckers, by Iain Lawrence

Sometimes a nation's economy is so poor it relies on thievery. Somalia is notorious for piracy to bring money to its people. Iain Lawrence takes a look at a different sort of piracy, that of wrecking ships to loot them. Using false lights, the people who live on the island of Pendennis lure lost ships to "The Tombstones," where the ships are wrecked and their loot free for anyone on Pendennis to grab. What a terrifying position it would be on that ship, and that's the position Lawrence puts the reader in his debut fiction novel, The Wreckers. This is a story with plenty of adventure and mystery to satisfy readers.

It just so happens that the first time fourteen-year-old John Spencer's father allows him to take a ride on his ship, the Isle of Skye, is also the time the Isle of Skye is wrecked. John survives the wreck and lays dazed as he watches the people who live on the island, those he believes are there to rescue him, kill one of the crew members of the Isle of Skye. John flees, chased by the wreckers, and is pulled into a hiding place by a man with no legs named Stumps. Stumps, John learns, has John's father held prisoner on the belief that the Isle of Skye smuggled gold.

Eventually the wreckers do catch up with John. A man named Caleb Stratton intends to kill John, but another, more powerful man, named Simon Mawgan instead takes John in. Even under the safety of Mawgan, John feels uneasy. There seems to be something sinister about Mawgan, and Mawgan seems to have other motives in holding onto John. Mawgan doesn't believe John that the Isle of Skye has no gold, only cheap wine in its holds. Why then was there sawdust? Why then was the cargo loaded in the dark? All is not bad for John, however. He meets a friend in Mawgan's niece, Mary, who shows him around the island.

Much of the tension revolves around who John can trust and what the wreckers plan to do with him, as well as whether his father is still alive. Lawrence sets the stakes early when he shows the wreckers killing off survivors, so the reader knows the threats to John's life are not idle. In the end the story isn't all that difficult to predict, but it's well-told and never dull. Lawrence's greatest creation is probably Mawgan, who is shrouded in mystery. At times he seems full of evil, and at other times he seems genuinely good, as his niece claims. Those who enjoy a good adventure will want to give this a read.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: Sasquatch, by Roland Smith

What if Sasquatch were real? What would we do if we did discover Sasquatch? What would Sasquatch do? These are all questions at the heart of Roland Smith's young adult novel, Sasquatch, and he does an interesting job in answering them. The story has enough maturity to make it believable, while still making use of enough young adult tropes to keep teen readers interested. There are elements of mystery as new characters are introduced and as the possibility of meeting Sasquatch nears. Smith wonders whether Sasquatch might be just as compassionate as human beings are capable of, and that makes for a much more compelling read than you might imagine.

Dylan Hickock's father loves to tinker with things. He's the kind of person who will devote all of his resources to solving a problem. One day when he returns from a hunting trip, Dylan realizes a new problem has arisen. Yet this one his father keeps to himself for a while, in order to keep his wife's mind at ease. She is planning to go to Egypt for several months to complete her college degree. This leaves Dylan alone with his father's new obsession, and Dylan, of course, becomes involved as well.

This obsession revolves around the existence of Bigfoot, or Sasquatch. Dylan's father claims he saw Sasquatch while on that hunting trip, and he takes Dylan to a secret Bigfoot meeting where a man shows photographs of who he claims is Bigfoot racing up a mountain carrying a deer carcass. A group of men want to investigate this area, around Mount St. Helens, and seek out Bigfoot. Here's where the trouble begins. There are four groups of thought regarding what to do with Bigfoot once he's found: 1) tranquilize him and study him; 2) kill him; 3) capture him at any cost (dead or alive); or 4) leave him alone. The first three options seek to expose Sasquatch to the public. The idea is that he can be better protected if his existence is made known. However, to kill a Sasquatch means to kill what is likely an endangered species, and it also means ending the life of a sentient being.

Dylan's father joins the expedition as a saboteur, and he is helped by Buckley Johnson, a mysterious man with a bad hip who would rather see Sasquatch left alone. It seems that Buck knows much more about Sasquatch than he lets on. The expedition team to hunt Sasquatch convenes at Dylan's house, where Dylan meets Dr. Flagg, the leader of the group. Dr. Flagg's philosophy is to capture Sasquatch at any cost, though he seems to lean more towards killing one. That's why the team has brought in Kurt Skipp, a skilled hunter and a man of few words. Dylan knows Skipp is trouble when he first sees him slice an apple into four pieces with the mere flick of a wrist.

The story does move at a moderate pace, a tad slow, and perhaps without as much action as one might expect from the title. All of the action comes right at the end. Smith seems more interested in the possibility that Sasquatch exists, and how people will react to discovering it. I think it's a small group of people who believe Sasquatch exists, or who are even interested in its existence, but there is always somebody claiming to have some blurry photo of the beast and there is always some new TV show set out to find one. The evidence suggests Sasquatch doesn't exist, but Sasquatch is a mythical being that can't be killed. The world is a large and mysterious place. Mankind has seen a lot of it, but not all of it. The ocean harbors all sorts of unknown beings, but on the land, the possibilities of discovering a new creature the size of Sasquatch are much more limited. It's true, as the book argues, that scientists do continually discover new land species all the time, especially in the rainforest, and that's what keeps the hope of Sasquatch's existence alive.

Smith approaches the topic of Sasquatch with a lot more compassion than I expected. My expectations based on the cover, and my misconception this was a horror story, led me to believe there would be lots of murders. That's not quite the case. Most of the mystery comes from the human characters, such as Buck and Kurt Skipp and whether Mount St. Helens will erupt during the Sasquatch expedition. Sasquatch, in fact, may be the least dangerous character of the bunch, and in that sense Smith may approach wildlife with a touch of naivete, just as a Disney film sometimes portrays a dangerous animal like a bear as friendly. It's hard to believe that a Sasquatch could be morally cultivated to know right from wrong rather than a being that acts on instinct to protect itself.

Still, Sasquatch could symbolize humanity's desire to tinker with the unknown. It's in our nature to discover new things about the world, as though we're afraid the world would become dull without any new discoveries. But what price do we pay by not leaving things alone? Is that price worth what we gain from the discovery? The novel stops short of answering these questions, and instead wraps up the story with a series of action set pieces. In the search for Sasquatch, it remains just as mystical as before the search. The book ends up being satisfying, but difficult to recommend. Just like many young adult novels, there is a mix of sophistication along with the usual YA tropes, but in both cases there doesn't seem to be enough to fully satisfy either adult or young adult readers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I listened to Stardust on Audible, as read by Neil Gaiman, who does an excellent job bringing his story to life. And yet, as much as I admired Gaiman's reading, I couldn't help but feel that the story plods along too slowly, with too many detours, and not quite enough excitement. Everything falls into place so neatly and without much suspense. It's all a little too pleasant.

Tristan Thorn lives in the city of Wall, a fictional place in England that separates the "real" world from the "fantasy" world of Faerie. Tristan is in love with Wall's most beautiful woman, Victoria (thought I imagine he has slim pickings in such a walled off town), and sets off to collect a fallen star in exchange for her love. Wall's entrance and exit is guarded 24/7 and nobody is allowed to come or go, yet Tristan gets a special pass. This is because he is not one hundred percent human. His father made love with a faerie woman during a festival many years before, and everybody in Wall except Tristan seem to know this. So the guards allow him to leave.

The fallen star is not simply a hunk of rock and metal, but it takes the form of a young woman named Yvaine. And Tristan is not the only person after her (falling stars are not uncommon in this fantasy world, it seems). The Lord of Stormhold, old as he is, tosses a topaz into the sky, which knocks Yvaine down to Earth, and sets his remaining living sons on task to find the topaz. He who retrieves it will gain Stormhold. That is, if Septimus, the seventh son, doesn't kill them all first. There is also a witch, named Lamia (in the movie), who sets off to collect the star's heart and bring it to her sisters so they can eat it and regain their youth.

While all of the side plots are relatively simple, the problem is that there are too many interruptions to the story. This problem arises right away when the story begins from the perspective of Tristan's father and of his meeting and coupling the fairy. When it switches to Tristan, I couldn't help but wonder whether the story's opening was necessary. Sure it sets up the fact that Tristan is different, but Tristan's half-human, half-faerie quality is barely harnessed. He knows the location of any place if asked, though he doesn't knows how he knows this. And the story breaks often to tell of what the witch is doing, and the point of this only seems to show off her power. And then there's the somewhat amusing plot around Primus, who seeks to avoid assassination from his brother.

There's also the problem that everything is predictable and the resolutions to these plots are anticlimatic. The obvious prediction is that Tristan will fall for the star. Yvaine spews so much hatred towards him when they first meet that you know by the end it will turn into love. Throughout the whole story, neither Tristan nor Yvaine need to lift a finger to get out of any predicament, except once. Tristan is helped all along the way, first by a mole-like creature who provides him a magic candle that allows Tristan to cover lots of ground quickly. The only time Tristan does anything to save himself is by thrusting his arm into fire at just the right moment in order to light the candle and escape the witch. Otherwise there is always some sort of convenience that allows Tristan and Yvaine to skate past danger unharmed. While there is a lot to be said about Gaiman's magical prose, it's the story that's most important, and in this case the story just grows dull.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: Interworld, by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves

An interesting tidbit in the book's "Afterword" mentions that Interworld was originally planned as a television series in the mid-90s. That idea was scrapped however, as there was concern over the audience base, and the story was later written into a young adult novel in 2007 (and a now completed trilogy). That concern over the audience is legitimate, as authors Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves can't seem to decide whether to aim this at a younger audience or an older audience. On one hand, the science behind the story is surprisingly complex. It's so complex that there were several passages that went way over my head, but those were the moments that intrigued me the most. On the other hand, the plot goes the usual way of young adult action stories, with paper-thin characters and an improbable showdown between the good guys and bad guys. If Gaiman and Reaves stuck with one or the other, they may have had something.

Gaiman fans may recall Neverworld as they read Interworld, as both stories are about a character who somehow has the ability to travel to parallel worlds. In Interworld, that character is Joey Harker, a high school student who has absolutely no sense of direction. That is, until he realizes he has the ability to Walk. Walking means to travel between the different parallel universes through a space called the In-Between. To Walk requires an innate ability to understand the In-Between, which Joey has. He doesn't realize this until the day of his social studies final exam, given by his teacher, Mr. Dimas, whose teaching methods seem questionable. The exam puts students into groups, blindfolds them, and sets them off into a random part of town, from which they must make their way back to school. Joey, of course, gets lost, and in his panic, he Walks.

During his Walking, Joey bumps into an armored stranger who wants him to follow him. Panicked yet again, Joey flees and Walks into another group of strangers who use magic to put him under their spell. This is when we learn who the first stranger is. His name is Jay, and it is his recorded journal entry that changes the novel from mundane young adult fiction into something much more interesting and complex. Joey Harker's ability to Walk is not his alone, or maybe it is, but also the infinite versions of Joey Harkers that exist in all of the parallel universes. Jay is one of these. These Joey Harkers have different names, all beginning with the letter J, and some are different sexes and others are different species (one has wings, one is like a werewolf, one is a cyborg), and all are different shapes and sizes. Joey, amongst all of these, is the plainest, but, oddly enough, plainness is usually what makes one a hero in stories like this.

Jay rescues Joey and, after some plot turns I won't reveal, gets him back to the home world, the Interworld, a base that floats from universe to universe, untrackable except by Walkers. Here we learn that the construct of the Altiverse (which contains the infinite universes that frequently pop up) is like a spectrum. Instead of our political spectrum of left and right (democrat and republican), the spectrum falls between magic and science. Some worlds are entirely magical, and these worlds produce persons who can use magic. The worlds based on science produce very sophisticated technology. Then there are worlds in between, that have a little of both. Our Earth would fall more in the science side, but close to the middle of the spectrum. This spectrum is important, because a balance must be kept. However, two organizations, HEX and Binary, fight to make the Altiverse fit squarely into only one side, science or magic. Interworld's job is to make sure the balance remains intact. Thus we have themes of not just science vs. spirituality, but the damage wrought by humanity's turn to extremes.

The story is peopled with many characters, though none are very complex. Just as is the case for many young adult adventure stories, most of the characters are just names with one character trait, and even Joey is paper-thin for a hero. It seems Gaiman could have made a much more interesting story out of one of the other versions of Joey, such as J/O, the cyborg with a Napoleon complex; or Jo, the winged girl; or Jakon, the werewolf girl; or Josef, the tanky kid whose version of Earth has a very strong gravity. The most interesting character of all is Hue, a mudluff, or a creature that resides in the In-Between. The In-Between is apparently peopled with mudluffs, who are supposedly dangerous, but Hue is the only one we meet, and he is hardly dangerous. Hue is a bubble-like creature who can change colors, which is how he communicates. He grows loyal to Joey and also serves as a plot device to move the story forward at several key moments. It's difficult to imagine the story working without Hue.

The main trouble with the story, however, is choosing its audience. It begins with the young adult audience in mind, with a kid worried about impressing a girl clearly not interested in him, and the usual teenage concerns written into such stories. Then the story grows more thematically complex, and it dives pretty deep into the science behind parallel universes, as Joey gets some schooling in Interworld, a la Harry Potter in Hogwarts. In this stretch there were moments of humor and moments of philosophy, and also a surprisingly touching moment involving Joey's mother. But then the story leaves behind the complexity and dives yet again into the young adult story formula. Not that I mean to degrade the young adult genre, but there are certain conventions some authors use that clearly mark a story as young adult, and those conventions are so predictable that it is difficult for adults to enjoy. That's where Interworld heads, which is a shame. I was beginning to feel that this was going to be another masterwork from Gaiman, but instead grew disappointed.

So who does this appeal to? Not to adults who would like something more from the plot, and not to teenagers who may grow bored with the lengthy passages dealing with the science. It's a very strange novel, in that regard, and makes me wish that authors didn't aim to make a story young adult, but trusted in the ability for young adults to enjoy a good story. Gaiman's Graveyard Book is aimed at young adults, but is written in such a way that adults can enjoy it as well. The misstep in Interworld is Gaiman and Reaves' belief that teenagers could be smart enough to understand or enjoy the science, but without realizing that teenagers that smart would also desire something more than the easy-to-predict storyline. This paradox makes it difficult for me to know who to recommend the novel to, except fans of Gaiman who are willing to read anything he writes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl has been talked about so much that it's difficult to begin reading the book (or watching the movie) without having an inkling of what is going to happen. It is well-known, then, that the story has a twist, and for those with any semblance of prediction ability, the possibilities for the twist in the story are limited. When I began reading the story, I began with an idea of what this twist was and I was not surprised when it happened. What did surprise me was the boldness of the ending. I will try my best not to give away any details that reveal any twists, but the nature of the book makes it difficult to write about without making any future readers suspicious of what this twist may be. Regardless of whether you know the twist or not, this book is engaging and thrilling from beginning to end.

Nick and Amy Dunne wed five years ago, and it seemed like the perfect match. Both were good-looking, and both found each other exciting. Fast-forward five years, and things are much less than perfect. Nick comes home one day to find the front door wide open, furniture strewn about the house, and his wife missing. The police get involved and right away it's clear that Nick is the number one suspect. The husband is always the top suspect because murders are most often committed by those closest to the victim. Flynn expertly puts us in the perspective of Nick while keeping him at arm's length. We want to believe and trust him, but as events unfold, we clearly cannot trust him.

Meanwhile, the story shares Amy's perspective in the form of diary entries. The diaries begin at the start of the relationship and tell an exciting, happy time. As time unfolds, however, we see problems in the marriage. Nick skipping an anniversary dinner to have drinks with friends and then getting upset with Amy for her disappointment. Nick losing his job. Amy's insecurities with being the titular character of her parents' set of youth books called the Amazing Amy series. As the years go by, the relationship grows more and more miserable.

And yet, all I will say, is the novel is not about one unreliable narrator, but two. That's the nature of diary entries. We are getting the story from one person, and even in Amy's descriptions, one can't help but feel she isn't all she says she is. She says she tries her best to be the cool wife who won't disapprove of Nick coming home late, but she comes off, in some ways, as the passive aggressive wife who is upset by this but only communicates it through her silence. And Nick is caught up in lie after lie. Sure, he admits to the reader that he has lied, but he does not say what he has lied about. And perceptive readers will catch on to some information he is leaving out. He often seems fearful of being found out about something possibly incriminating, but he never says what it is, not even in the confidence of the reader, who can't possibly report that information to the police.

Then the novel drops its bombshell. When other novels lay out their big plot twists, it usually means the story is coming to an end. In this case, however, it is just the beginning. The novel doesn't slow down its momentum - it gains momentum. From this moment forward it challenges its readers in their values and their beliefs about what they think they know about missing persons and murder cases like this one. Do you trust what the media tells you? Do you trust the way the media portrays certain people? In most cases, we do trust the media. The media is a powerful, influential force, and it exerts its power by creating a narrative of events even if it doesn't have all of the facts. Rolling Stone magazine had the nation believing, for some time, that the University of Virginia allowed one of its fraternities to get away with gang rape, only for an investigation to later reveal that Rolling Stone hadn't done its fact-checking and the rape likely didn't happen. The gang rape was Rolling Stone's narrative, but it was a false narrative. Gone Girl makes us wonder whether there really is a way to objectively tell a story.

Gone Girl will make you think about issues of trust, of relationships (in particular marriage), of narratives, of the thin line between good and evil, of how media helps shape that line, and of so many things. Her novel may make you angry, and I honestly can't think of any reason somebody will be completely satisfied with the ending, though I don't mean this in a bad way. You will be challenged constantly. You will be thrilled and excited by the intense chess match that plays out. You will be amazed by the wits of its major characters. Ultimately you will be angry. I'm still reeling a little bit, but as with many inevitable things in life, you have no choice but to settle with the fact that evil is unavoidable, no matter how blatantly obvious it is.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

Joe Hill is nearly the spitting image of his father with Heart-Shaped Box, a ghostly thriller with the same sort of villains and dialogue Stephen King might have written. I've already read Horns, so I know Joe Hill has his own style, and I believe he will grow into an excellent horror writer with unique ideas. Heart-Shaped Box isn't quite as good as Horns, as it suffers from habits I'm worried could bog down some of Hill's later works. For one, Hill loves to give background information. He allows background information to take over the main plot where just a little bit of background information might have been more effective. It's a shame, too, because the novel has lots of promise at the start and even gets good again towards the end.

Judas Coyne, known as Jude, has retired from the heavy metal lifestyle after members of his band passed away due to one cause or another. Still filthy rich, Jude collects grotesque objects, such as a five-hundred-year-old peasant skull and a three-hundred-year-old confession signed by a witch. He also owns a video of a gang suffocating a couple (and it's this video that understandably precipitates his divorce). Jude even collects women and names them after states like Florida and Georgia. These women, like Jude, also love the grotesque, dressing in the Goth fashion of black hair, lipstick, and fingernails. Jude's obsession with grotesque objects eventually leads him to purchase a ghost.

Now, he doesn't directly purchase the ghost. He purchases a suit that belonged to the deceased. This suit is shipped to him in a heart-shaped box. His dogs, Angus and Bon, don't like it. His girlfriend, Georgia, doesn't like it either. Jude himself begins to dislike it when a creepy old man with a razor-sharp pendulum begins to make an appearance. Eventually, Jude's secretary, named Danny, drives himself to suicide, and it seems clear that this ghost is out to kill Jude and everyone he loves. Jude discovers that this ghost is the grandfather of Jude's troubled ex-girlfriend, Florida, who apparently committed suicide not long after Jude kicked him out. So the ghost is out for revenge, right?

The story goes back and forth between Jude and Georgia's escape from the ghost to background information about Jude's past, namely his relationship with Florida (the woman, not the state). It's not that this background is bad, per se, but it delves too far and takes on improvised characteristics, where revelations from the past help form plot points in the present. This seems lazy, the way that Jude suddenly remembers important things with perfect clarity. There is a lot of emotional power in what happens in the story, but the improvised feeling takes away the emotional impact from these events. Florida, anyway, is not the one we were following from the start. It is Jude and Georgia we care about, but their stories are sidelined. Hill had a similar problem with Horns, which has a terrific opening, but then stalls with a needlessly long background story.

Hill does write some powerful passages of horror. His description of the ghost, Craddock, is his best work in the whole story. Craddock is what makes the story interesting, since Jude and Georgia fail to have an intriguing personality despite their anti-social tendencies. When Craddock first appears, the imagery Hill uses is haunting. At that point I thought that I was in for a treat. Unfortunately, Hill never replicates that horror. There are some moments of fear for the lives of the main characters, and some moments of awful violence. But, as threatening as the ghost is, he disappears and reappears at the convenience of the plot. He is there, however, just enough to let us know this will end in death, his or theirs. At least something big is at stake.

In his first two novels, Hill displays a love of music. Heart-Shaped Box is devoted almost entirely to heavy metal/rock n' roll. The references to rock bands are everywhere. Jude's own name is an obvious reference to The Beatles (a band Ig in Horns loved a lot, and a band King also adores). Nirvana is another reference, and there is also mention of the Foo Fighters, Metallica, and others. It's disappointing this music doesn't have a very big impact on the plot. It seems that Hill missed an opportunity that his novel's title promised. Hill clearly wants to aim for something unique, but his heavy focus on background information grounds him in conventional plotting. His story is well-organized and it plods along slowly and deliberately, like a storyteller who wants to take his time and let the story live on as long as he can - just as Jude clings to life. These are the tells of a good storyteller, and I hope Hill has his breakout moment soon. It would be nice to have a new horror writer to look forward to for another generation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: Time Cat, by Lloyd Alexander

Time Cat is Lloyd Alexander's tribute to the cat. Throughout the book, which covers many different places and periods of time, cats are worshiped, desired, and, in one case, feared. Cats teach people many different lessons, or they inspire them to do greater things, or they are simply admired for their beauty, grace, and playful nature. This is a book aimed at a young adult audience, combining the cuteness and desirability of the cat with a little bit of history. Alexander is keenly observant about the behavior of the cat, and the effect this behavior has on people, and his goal seems to get youths interested in history by showing them the universal appeal of the cat, no matter the time period.

Jason one day wishes he could speak to his cat, Gareth, and Gareth one-ups him: he tells the boy that he can visit. Visit? Essentially Gareth can travel through time. Jason, naturally, wants to see this, so Gareth promises to take him with him to a few places, with a warning that he will be unable to protect him from what might happen. The first place they go to isn't the time of dinosaurs, which I imagine would be the first place most kids Jason's age would want to go. No, first is Egypt, where cats are regarded as godly. Jason and Gareth are captured, as they will be many times throughout their adventures, and they learn that the pharaoh, Neter-Khet, has long wanted a cat companion. What he wants this cat to do is worship him. Jason (who through magic can understand and speak his language) informs Neter-Khet that cats do not worship. Cats do as they please. Neter-Khet gradually understands and learns to enjoy the small things about cat companionship - that there are few things so joyful as a cat purring on your lap, for example.

Gareth also takes Jason to Rome (55 B.C.), Britain, Ireland (411 A.D.), Japan (998 A.D.), along with Italy, Peru, and America, among some others, during important historical times. These stories don't focus on the political side of history, but rather on the human aspects: people merely trying to find joy or trying to escape hardship. Many of the plots focus on a leader who has been seeking the companionship of a cat. The Japanese emperor, a boy, has long wanted a cat. The captain of a Spanish army in Peru has ordered a cat from Spain and believes Gareth is it. Even Leonardo da Vinci shows up, and it is Gareth who inspires an early painting. Alexander makes these historical figures human by demonstrating their awe of cats. He also paints a small picture of the sort of habitats the people live in, describing the homes and even some of the hobbies of the people. The history may be skimpy, but at least young readers can connect with the people in these historical times as people and not as statistics.

Jason is a very important character, not just because he is the main character, but because he is both curious and intelligent. He never once compares the time or place he is in to the one that he has lived his entire life. He views it, rather, as a sort of vacation. Time Cat was written in 1963, so I can only imagine a modern equivalent, with a boy hooked to his smart phone and video games being sent on this journey. Would that boy react the same way as Jason, or would he be more like the boy in Willy Wonka, missing his technology? I imagine most people today would be reaching for their smart phones to capture pictures if they were in Jason's place, finding something to post to Instagram or Facebook. Jason, on the other hand, seems content to simply be a part of the experience. This in itself is a great lesson.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Happy Birthday, Wanda June, by Kurt Vonnegut

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is Kurt Vonnegut's response to the uber-macho values of Ernest Hemingway, whose ideas of manliness involved killing animals for sport. This didn't just include Hemingway's fondness for bullfighting, whose goal is killing bulls as efficiently and elegantly as possible, but also Hemingway's hunting of exotic animals. Vonnegut wonders at the destructiveness of this sort of "heroic" manliness. It's the sort of thing that led to the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. Vonnegut inserts his Hemingway caricature into a modern version of Odysseus, who returns home to a different sort of woman than the Greek hero did. Whether or not this is fair to Hemingway as a person, Vonnegut has nonetheless managed to write a witty, entertaining play, even if it does grow a little too preachy at the end.

Penelope Ryan's husband, Harold Ryan, went on a safari and has been missing for eight years. His son, Paul, was four when Harold left, but Paul worships the father he wished he'd had. Many people, in fact, worship Harold Ryan. That's because Harold is a war hero, having killed hundreds of Nazis, some with his bare hands. The killing didn't stop with the war, however. Harold loved to hunt, but after eight years he had been long assumed dead. Penelope finds herself with two suitors chasing after her: Herb Shuttle, a vacuum salesman who dreams of being Harold, and Dr. Norbert Woodly, who opposes violence of any kind and despises the hunting trophies that still litter the Ryan household. Unlike Homer's Penelope, Vonnegut's Penelope encourages both men, alternating between dates with each one. Paul hates them both, but he hates it even more that nobody seems to care it's his father's birthday.

But then Harold makes his return, along with his friend, Colonel Looseleaf Harper, who is haunted by his decision to drop the first atomic bomb. He just goes along with what others tell him, including Harold. Harold believes that when he returns home, everything will return to normal. And if his wife is a bit hesitant in her enthusiasm, well that's nothing a trip to the bedroom won't cure. In this he is sadly mistaken. Even his son is uncertain of what to make of him. Harold seems to despise his own son, believing him not to be manly enough. He even shoos Paul outside in order to get a chance to be alone with Penelope, but Penelope locks Harold out of the bedroom. She's had a college education and she's gotten different ideas of her husband now. Heroes are the type of people, she says to him, who hate home and try to stay away as often as possible, but when they are home they make "awful messes." That's exactly what Harold Ryan does.

Wanda June is also a character in the play. She's a ghost of a ten-year-old girl who was struck and killed by an ice cream truck. So it goes. She's in the play because Shuttle, wanting to appease Paul's anger over people ignoring his father's birthday, buys a birthday cake. This one was on sale because the little girl's parents didn't pick it up. Wanda June is a ghost in heaven, and heaven is such a great place because people can do anything there. She befriends Major Siegfried von Konigswald, a Nazi officer who is also known as the Beast of Yugoslavia. The Major was killed by Harold Ryan. But he and Wanda June say you shouldn't be mad at people who kill you. In fact, it's so great to be up in heaven that people should kill each other more often. This is obviously satire aimed at the likes of Harold Ryan, who believes that being killed in battle is an honor. It's not, Penelope counters, because being killed means you no longer exist. To the Harold Ryans of the world, dying means going to a heaven where you can play shuffleboard all you want and tornadoes will bounce you around but never hurt you. It's a grand place, so nobody should be upset over a little bit of killing.

Harold Ryan truly is a piece of work. He's the most interesting part of the play because he's such a monster. He has a manliness that's tough not to admire, but a personality that's easy to hate. He treats others with derision. He tells his wife to make breakfast without an ounce of gratitude and toys with the emotions of his son. Nobody is good enough for him. There's a part of Hemingway's own work that Vonnegut seems to be reflecting in Harold Ryan. Hemingway is critical, in his prose, of those who don't fit in with his ideals of manliness, which is hardly anybody. Just think of Robert Cohn, from The Sun Also Rises, and the hatred poured on him by the main character. Harold Ryan is the behind the scenes manly man, who drives several wives to drink themselves to an early grave and is now struggling to keep his current wife in his good graces. Vonnegut's values tend to match our own modern values of gender, where men have a growing role in raising the child and taking care of the home and even, God forbid, cooking and doing laundry. Gasp!

The one problem with the play that I have is its turn into moralizing and explaining at the end. There's a verbal showdown between Woodly and Harold where Woodly explains who Harold is and Harold, unbelievingly, sees himself in a new light, as though the conceited man the audience has grown to hate could be so easily swayed. Not that I am going to ruin what happens, as it isn't quite so predictable as you think. While I do agree with Vonnegut's message, the delivery is too direct. His depiction of Wanda June in heaven is effective because of its subtlety, and Vonnegut should have stuck with subtlety rather than pointedly stating his play's overarching "message." Yet I would still highly recommend this play. It has plenty of moments of witty humor and plenty more moments of tension-filled dialogue. Besides, people should read more, no matter what it is, because then there would be more peace and less killing. Dr. Norbert Woodly would love that.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: The Atlantis Gene, by A. G. Riddle

A. G. Riddle's The Atlantis Gene is one of those rare indie success stories in the book publishing world, a first time author whose book just exploded in sales out of nowhere. And now the movie rights have been picked up by CBS. Pretty cool. The biggest reason it's such a success, I would guess, is that it's actually pretty good. It touches on improbable conspiracy theories, blends history with adventure, creates a semi-romance that has some chemistry, and fires it all off in rapid-fire chapters. Sure it's uneven - the mark of a new writer - but the parts that work greatly outweigh those that don't. And while many readers will probably scoff at the use of 9/11 conspiracy, it's difficult to deny the draw of the apocalyptic plot. Riddle disarms his readers with his intensive research while simultaneously making eyes roll with improbable action - and that's all part of the book's charm.

The story rotates between many, many perspectives, but the two main characters are David Vale and Kate Warner. David Vale is an operative within a secret organization called Clocktower. Clocktower has been corrupted, however, by an even larger corporation called Immari, which hides its dirty work behind the veil of some of its many branches, such as research and security. Both of these organizations have branches all around the world, thus the novel's initial setting of Jakarta, Indonesia. Kate Warner is a researcher for Immari. Her research involves finding a cure for autism, and Jakarta's massive population and lax regulations make it an ideal place to do this research. Riddle sets up lab testing on human beings as a lesser of two evils. Autistic children in Jakarta are treated like prison inmates (at least as far as Riddle portrays it), so Kate and her fellow researchers see themselves as doing good. Little does Kate know that her employers have other ideas for her research. Two autistic children from Kate's lab are kidnapped, setting in motion Immari's evil plot.

The early parts of the novel make use of lots of action. David is a very skilled operative, evading Immari and rescuing Kate from their clutches - twice. Blended with this is a lot of talk about the early evolution of mankind. A volcanic eruption on the island of Java, what is deemed the Toba Catastrophe, nearly wiped out the homo sapiens species. For some reason this catastrophe also triggered an evolutionary response that led homo sapiens to drive the other human species to extinction. The trigger of this evolutionary response is at the heart of Riddle's story. Of course, Riddle is not on a scientific mission to solve the mystery/theory of the Toba Catastrophe. He is merely using it as a plot point. The villains in the novel, Dorian Sloane and Mallory Craig, seem to have a good idea of what caused it - a species called the Atlanteans, whose city was submerged in water tens of thousands of years ago.

What's at stake is humanity itself. Immari, we learn, is leading a terrorist attack called the Toba Protocol, which is meant to wipe out most of humanity in order to trigger another evolutionary response. A lot of things that happen in this book will make you cringe and roll your eyes. David explains how Immari is an organization that is tens of thousands of years old and that they were behind the 9/11 attacks instead of Al-Qaeda. Right. David and Kate will fight off hordes of trained soldiers. David will get shot, a lot. There's also a secret weapon shaped like a bell that melts people. The first half of this book is pretty laughable, but it's also hard to put down. But it's the second half that gets surprisingly good. While the events that happen aren't probable, they are, at least, believable. Plus, Riddle does a great job of tying up plot threads and enlightening readers on why things happen way they do.

Riddle's novel will likely remind you of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, with its secret societies and improbable conspiracies. His writing style is reminiscent of Dean Koontz, whose novels move so fast you almost don't have time to stop and think. Most of Riddle's chapters end in a flash, and news reports ingeniously fill in some exposition. As fast-paced as the novel is, there are parts that get heavily bogged down in detail and action. This is true at the start and in the middle. Surprisingly it's the discovery of a diary that helps turn the novel from a mediocre work to something better. The novel introduces a new perspective, from 1918, and a new narrative, one that is much more believable and compelling than the main narrative. Yet, this narrative helps elevate the main narrative (that is, after some silly action scenes involving hot air balloons). As more and more mysteries are unlocked, the novel grows more and more compelling. And then you reach the end. Yes, this book is silly, ridiculous, and at times just plain unrealistic, but it's also a lot of fun.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Review: Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime Volume One, by Paul Preuss

Venus Prime Volume One is a science fiction thriller/crime drama that borrows so many elements from other genres that it feels disjointed, but that doesn't make it any less intense, philosophical, or intriguing. The author, Paul Preusss borrows heavily from an Arthur C. Clarke short story called "Breaking Strain," and the rest of the stories in the Venus Prime series similarly borrow from Clarke's fiction. The idea behind Clarke's original stories was to imagine human life on Venus, and in writing his stories he discovered challenges he had not originally imagined. Venus, for one, is too hot for human life and it's covered in acid, so people would need to invent special technology to survive there. But there may be some good reasons for people to want to go there - particularly for resources. Preuss's version of Clarke's original stories is an admirable work because of what Preuss adds to it himself, particularly the character of Sparta.

The woman, Sparta, was part of a secret project that sought to enhance human beings using biotechnology. This project failed and Sparta's memory was wiped, but she has since been subject to experimentation and examination by the government agency that started the project. That is, until her doctor decides, out of a sudden act of compassion, to reawaken her memories (minus the past three years or so). She escapes in dramatic fashion by flying a helicopter. Despite her lengthy containment away from the public, she seems to know exactly what to say and what to do to get what she wants. She is able to hack into any computer system using a USB-like device that extends from the tip of her finger. She is also able to break into a car in order to steal the sliver (credit card) from it and buy herself some food and other essentials.

After her escape the story turns to a plot with a wealthy woman named Sondra Sylvester who owns a mining corporation. She has purchased some robots capable of mining on the surface of Venus and wants them shipped there as soon as possible. The trouble is, the next ship to depart, the Star Queen, is still under repairs and the owners are scrambling to get it ready in time. Meanwhile, Sylvester is enjoying her time with her immature, but apparently alluring, partner, Nancybeth. She also has her eyes on a book, a one-of-a-kind item that is only the second-known copy to exist. It's called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and is worth a good fortune. However, Sylvester is outbid by an old lover, which, frankly, pisses her off. The book becomes entwined in the plot when it is placed on the Star Queen in time for the voyage to Venus.

This stretch of plot is lengthy, and less interesting than Sparta's, and for some time I wondered if Preuss had forgotten about his star character. Fortunately, this is not the case. Sparta makes a life for herself and becomes involved in an investigation that, you might guess, is involved with the Star Queen. The second half of the book takes place on Venus, in Port Hesperus, though I won't reveal much what happens there, except that it turns into an intense police mystery, sort of a buddy cop kind of thing. It's easy to get lost in the details, but Sparta keeps things moving at a brisk pace, always several steps ahead of the audience - but even she makes her mistakes.

What starts out as a Bourne Identity-esque book, with a hero unsure of her identity but having no trouble with her enhanced training/powers, quickly turns into a business drama, and then a philosophical space thriller, and finally a mystery thriller. The best part of this is the third. This takes place on the Star Queen, where only two crew members were placed aboard, despite the customary rule of three. An accident happens, one that makes it impossible for the crew to survive the remainder of the trip. Preuss watches, with fascination, what these two men begin to think and how they behave. We see things from the perspective of the captain, Peter Grant, who makes assumptions about his crewmate, McNeil, that may or may not be wrong. Preuss wonders how a man, one who considers himself morally sound, would begin to act and think when his life is at stake. Two men, with the available oxygen supply, couldn't make the trip. But one - one would survive. How this plays out is intriguing.

But Sparta truly is the star of the show. Here is a woman who is a strong character, not just through technological enhancements, but through her confidence and her personality. It is fun to watch the way she asserts her authority over the case in Venus, making sure the man assigned to her, Viktor Proboda, knows she is in charge. Not that Proboda is your typical macho man; he realizes her competence and grows to admire her. Not only is Sparta competent in times of pressure, she is also very smart, much smarter than most everybody else. It's true she has some unfair advantages due to her tools and gifts, but the kinds of smarts she has come from more than enhanced technology. I enjoyed seeing Sparta's story unfold. She is the perfect sci-fi heroine, and she is the lead character of what has begun as an amazingly entertaining sci-fi series.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: Monster, by Walter Dean Myers

"When you make a film, you leave an impression on the viewers, who serve as a kind of jury for your film. If you make your film predictable, they'll make up their minds about it long before it's over."
- Mr. Sawicki, Steve Harmon's film teacher

Watching the life of another human being is like watching a film. You only know what you see onscreen. We judge others based on initial impressions and appearances. For a young black teenager named Steve Harmon, who has been accused as being an accomplice to a murder, this becomes a scary reality as he realizes his fate lies in the hands of a jury of viewers who are trying to decide what kind of person he is and whether he is the kind of person capable of being part of a murder. Simply being black makes this an uphill battle for Steve, as news footage showing pictures and videos of young black men committing murder dominates the media and colors peoples' views of the black population. The prosecution knows this and uses it to their advantage. The goal is to convince the jury that Steve is a monster.

Monster is written from the perspective of Steve Harmon, who is writing it in the form of a movie script. There are voice overs, close-ups, medium shots, long shots, and so on. There's a cast of characters that includes Steve's lawyer, a woman named O'Brien; Steve's friend, also up for murder, James King; King's lawyer, Asa Briggs; the prosecutor, Petrocelli; Steve's mother and father and brother; Steve's film teacher, Mr. Sawicki; the judge, and so on. We see scenes of Steve's past. His interaction with his brother, his conversations with others in the neighborhood, including King. Interspersed amongst his screenplay are journal entries, where Steve searches within his soul to try to learn who he is. The trial has rattled his identity, especially as he realizes that everyone, including his own lawyer, including his own parents, believe that he is a monster.

The trial revolves around the death of a drugstore owner, a middle-aged black man whose own weapon was used against him. The place was robbed of the little bit of cash in the register and a few cartons of cigarettes, which were later sold to people who snitched to the police. Four people were involved. James was the one suspected to have pulled the trigger, while Steve was suspected to have been a lookout. He merely entered the store and left, and his silence was the signal that all was clear. Of course, Steve never admits to doing this. He doesn't want to write anything in his notebook that might indict him. There are indications things did happen the way they did, but the shooting was an accident. Steve perhaps found himself in a situation he didn't want to be in in the first place that went too far. And now he might face 25 years to life.

Though the novel never establishes whether Steve was actually involved in the crime, you can't help but hope the jury does not convict him. Steve is sensitive, and his time in prison would likely be awful. He contemplates suicide, but prisoners aren't allowed to have belts or shoelaces. Myers masterfully keeps the reader distant from Steve, by not allowing us into the events of that eventful day, while at the same time he puts us squarely in his shoes, facing his fears and feeling his isolation. This is especially apparent when Steve realizes that his father now looks at him differently, and when his own lawyer fails to develop any sort of bond with him - for her it's probably just a paycheck. At one point, a young black juror smiles at him, but when he returns her smile, she looks away as if remembering who he is, and we can understand Steve's despair.

Though I've only read three of Myers' novels now (and sadly he has passed away), I admire his experimentation with genre. Of the three books I have read, Fallen Angels was the only one that was a traditional narrative. Shooter is a multigenre work, a mix of diary entries, interviews, newspaper clippings, and police reports, all combined to create the whole story. Monster is a screenplay, though not strictly a screenplay, as it also has pictures and Steve's personal thoughts. While the screenplay portion feels distant, focusing solely on the trial, it's through the diary entries that the book is more intimate with Steve. This technique also keeps us distant from the other defendant, James King, who may or may not have done what he was accused of, but it seems likely he pushed Steve into doing something Steve didn't want to do.

People of privilege have trouble bringing themselves into the perspective of those who lack that same privilege. In the closing statements, the prosecutor, Petrocelli, says of James King, "If he had chosen priests and Boy Scouts as his companions, I'm sure we wouldn't be here today." The key word here is "chosen." Petrocelli believes James and Steve had this choice to make, probably because in her own experience this was a viable choice. It's easy to believe that you get to choose the people you associate with when you have the privilege to make that choice. But the reality is, even for those who do have a life of privilege, you don't necessarily choose who you associate with and you don't always choose where your life ends up taking you. Time and place are key. For Steve, being a young black man in a poor neighborhood, his choices are limited, as the likes of King prowl around and seek to use him for his own gains. Steve's choices are limited to incurring the wrath of the likes of King or doing as they bid and feeling accepted. Monster is one of those books that should be read by everyone, white or black, because it allows us to see from the perspective of a demonized young man like Steve Harmon and realize that he is not a monster.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: The Songs of Distant Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

With The Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur C. Clarke wanted to tell a realistic science fiction story about long distance space travel and interplanetary relations. It was written partly in reaction to the fantasy science fiction of Star Trek and Star Wars, which were both popular when Clarke wrote this. Star Trek and Star Wars are great entertainment, mainly because they have some excellent stories and enjoyable characters. The Songs of Distant Earth does not have a very engaging cast of characters, nor does it have a particularly engaging storyline. It's at its best, however, when it makes readers pause to think about such wonders as the realities of space travel or the terror of a helpless population facing inevitable destruction by the expanding sun. This isn't a despairing novel, however, but one of hope and faith in the adaptability of the human race.

In Clarke's fictional tale, 20th century scientists discover signals radiating from the sun that predict its demise by the year 4000. This didn't alarm most of humanity right away, but as time advanced nearer, people realized they needed to act more quickly. Scientists sought out planets that might sustain human life if conditioned just right. Seedships were sent out, commandeered by robots and stocked with all of the pertinent knowledge these new men and women would need to know in order to begin again. These planets were hundreds of years away, so humanity had to be patient to await the news of success. Meanwhile, scientists were frantically trying to figure out faster means of space travel and people were growing increasingly hedonistic, or increasingly religious, whichever suited their needs.

The planet of Thalassa was one such planet chosen for colonization, and with the exception of a tiny landmass, it was a perfect place. It was among the first, colonized in about 2900, and surviving still for 700 years due to its wise leaders and non-violent people. Population control measures were also necessary to reduce strain on the planet's resources. Among the Thalassans is Brant, an engineer who is frustrated that his fish traps keep getting sabotaged. Mirissa is his girlfriend, and she, it seems, is also the most knowledgeable Thalassan on the planet, having read most everything handed down from the mothership (where they originated). Mayor Waldron is a middle-aged lady who oversees South Island, and she also has a sexual appetite with a special interest in Brant.

One day this planet's peaceful operations are interrupted by the visitation of an alien ship. From this ship step two men who claim they have come from Earth. These men are Loren Lorenson, ship commander, and Moses Kaldor, ship ambassador. Apparently Earth did figure out how to create improved space travel using the quantum drive. The quantum drive uses the vacuum of space to propel it forward and can move for an unlimited amount of time. It can't approach the speed of light, just one-twenthieth of the speed of light, and that's one of the points Clarke wanted to make. People cannot approach the speed of light. That means no warp speed a la Star Trek or Star Wars. After 200 years of travel the ship, called the Magellan, arrives at Thalassa because it needs ice. Yes, ice. Ice is the best asteroid shield in space, but after 200 years of travel the crew of the Magellan are worried they don't have enough of a shield to make it to their destination, still 300 years away, of Sagan Two.

So the humans from Earth and the Thalassans socialize together as the Magellan does its work of making ice and raising it to form the ice shield, a two year process. This is where the novel becomes less compelling, broken into a series of mini-events, most of them unconnected. Loren and Mirissa of course fall in love, but Brant doesn't seem too upset about this. There's a discovery of some strange lobster creature in the sea, Mayor Waldron hitting on Loren, a mutiny aboard the Magellan, conversations between Moses and Mirissa about Earth, Mirissa's brother Kumar developing a close bond with Loren, and so on and so forth. The drama is hardly compelling and mostly boring. These people are way too nice. This is great
for the hopes for humanity's future, to be sure, but when I'm reading a novel I want a little more tension, conflict, and cohesion than this novel has to offer.

So while Clarke offers this up as a realistic version of those fantasy sci-fi blockbusters of Star Wars and Star Trek, it is hardly their equal. The story is very compelling for the first third, on and off compelling for the next third, and then dull for the last third. I can understand and appreciate a good sci-fi story that doesn't make use of lightsabers and phasers set to stun and amped-up action scenes. I can appreciate a good piece of speculative fiction, giving realistic thought to what could possibly happen to humanity in case the sun blew up. It's a frightening thought to see that everything mankind has created could just melt away, but there is some comfort in realizing that doesn't have to be the end. Mankind just might be able to continue on after all. There was a part of me, while reading this, that wanted to be among the crew of the Magellan, hibernating for hundreds of years and waking up to find myself in a whole new world, and that's how evocative this novel was when it came to its big ideas.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

So many young adult romances these days are so serious and gloomy that it's refreshing when one comes along that is full of spirit and humor. And that's ironic in this case because the two main characters of The Fault in Our Stars have good reason to be gloomy. One has terminal cancer, and the other had his leg amputated in order to remove his cancer. Their early encounters with near-death has given Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters a jaded view on life, which shows in their witty humor. These kids aren't heroes or fighters, though that's what everyone calls them. They just happen to be dying from an anomaly of their bodies. Yet they learn how to enjoy the small things and to find love, which is important. This story, despite its subject matter, had me laughing for most of it. When it gets to the final stretch, when things grow predictably gloomy, I grew bored, but I can see the appeal to the many readers who have fallen in love with John Green's tale.

The story is told from the perspective of Hazel Grace, a sixteen year old girl who has lived past her life expectancy because of a miracle drug called Phalanxifor (which doesn't really exist). Her parents want her to be as happy as she can. So rather than mope about, she must attend support group meetings, where Patrick, the support group leader, talks about God and about how he (Patrick, not God) lost his testicles to survive cancer and how everything will be alright in the end. The kind of stuff that makes Hazel gag. Her only friend is Isaac, who is about to lose his eyes in order to (hopefully) defeat cancer, but one day a hot boy turns up named Augustus Waters. And the first thing Augustus does is stare at her. Stare and stare and stare, until she stares back. He asks her out, breaks past her defenses, and shows her V for Vendetta because she reminds him of Natalie Portman.

And so they continue to be friends, but definitely more than friends. They fall in love, but take awhile to admitting it. She doesn't want to hurt anybody because she knows she will die young. Augustus, or Gus, has already been hurt when his ex-girlfriend lost her battle to cancer (Hazel would hate to know I used that metaphor). Hazel eventually shares her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, by Peter Van Houten (also made up), with Gus. This book becomes almost central to the conflict, as the two want to know how it ends. Van Houten, maddeningly, ended it too abruptly, and Hazel's one wish is to know how the characters' stories resolve.

The first two-thirds of this book are fantastic. Hazel is an intelligent, hilarious narrator, and the dialogues between her and Gus are full of energy and wit. Green has the courage to write teenage characters who are smart when so many other teenage characters in YA fiction try not to be so smart. The dialogue, I'll admit, is not entirely believable, but what matters is that the dialogue is lots of fun. It isn't aiming to be real. It's very much like Diablo Cody's Juno, another teenager who spoke with too much wit, but without which the movie wouldn't have been so fantastic. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this book, and it's not often a book allows me to do that.

But, of course, this is a book about cancer, and most any book about cancer has a part where you will cry. You will cry because the person with cancer dies, or you will cry because they overcome all odds and survive. Either way, there is that serious moment when things look bad, or when you just don't know what will happen, and that's no different for this book. The problem is, the book gets really dull. The last third loses much of its energy, inevitably, and while it never gets bad, Green does a lot of philosophical explaining, and none of it is particularly mind-blowing stuff. This last third of the book, more than the rest, is a meditation on life, on the fact that everyone is a part of this world for a brief amount of time, but some people are on it for an even briefer amount of time. The book grasps at an over-reaching philosophy on life's grand meaning, and ends up finding a new way to say something not all that new.

Not that I mean to bring a gloomy note to the end of my review. John Green is clearly a talented and very imaginative writer. What makes The Fault in Our Stars so enjoyable is that its sole mission is not to elevate these cancer kids to the status of heroes. The book's mission is to make them human, make them real, and make them into people you wouldn't mind having as a friend. These aren't gloomy kids seeking pity, or pitying themselves (not all the time, but everyone does that now and then). These are kids trying to enjoy life, to make it as normal as possible, which means getting frustrated with people who treat them like little saints. Despite its dances with death, The Fault in Our Stars has a rebellious joy for life, dancing in the face of the universe.