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.