Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I loved it. It's a great book. It deserves its popularity and I cannot wait to (finally) see the movie!

Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a Third. He's a third child in a time when people are limited to two, but his existence was sanctioned by the government in the hopes that he would be just the little soldier they are looking for. Both of his older siblings, evil Peter and loving Valentine, were studied, but both were rejected as candidates. Now it is Ender's turn. Ender is 6.

Unlike any children we know, Ender and the other children who have been selected for the military training program are wise, brilliant, and, when it matters, ruthless. Ender must learn how to navigate his way through various educational programs with all of the odds stacked against him.

I know, that sounds a little dry. It's just that you don't need to hear from me that this book is worthwhile because it's been around since the 80s and has withstood the test of time. And I don't want to spoil anything.

I can say the pacing is great... I just tore through this one. And it's so compelling... my bath got down to room temperature before I finally acquiesced to pausing in my reading so I could get out. Ender is a wonderfully written character. But it's not just Ender -- the "side" characters are all also wonderfully written. Everyone from Peter to Valentine to Graff (teacher) to Bean (co-student) to Bonzo (another co-student), etc. etc. etc. I look forward to reading other books in the Ender Saga.

FIVE of five stars.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman

This is a graphic novel telling/showing one man's (the author/illustrator's father) experiences and survival of the holocaust. In the graphic novel, Poles are represented as pigs, Jews are mice, and Nazi Germans are cats (all Germans are Nazi Germans in this tale). I ... am not sure if the chosen animals are meant to represent anything in particular. It seemed pretty obvious to me that he chose cats as a natural foil to the mice, but I'm not sure what the pigs were supposed to represent. The tale includes Polish individuals that appear to be good, appear to be bad, and appear to be very self-interested. I hadn't really taken any particular "message" about the chosen animal, but I was curious.

So Vladeck Spiegelman (Art's father) was a man with a relatively new wife and a new baby when he was first taken as a prisoner of war at the beginning of World War II. He is eventually released and makes it back to his family, where he discovers that, while they still have most of their possessions, house, and money, they are beginning to live as prisoners in their own cities. As time progresses, the Germans demand more and more from the Jewish population, including their elderly, their children, their furniture, their homes, their lives. Spiegelman shows the perspective of someone who did not know what was happening---in retrospect, we know what Auschwitz is, but when it first came on the horizon, they did not know, and this was well portrayed in Maus I.

Because it's a graphic novel, Spiegelman is able to tell a horrific story in a way that is palatable for most. It is heart-breaking and tragic, but it is a little removed in its form of telling (which I do believe is the point). Also, Spiegelman incorporates other present-day story into the graphic novel, finding a way to humanize his father and what happened to him as well as provide insight into the impact such experiences can have on someone and, yet, how they continue to find meaning in their everyday lives and relationships.

I can't say that I "enjoyed" this, because it is, as I say, heart-breaking. But it was well done and informative. I think Spiegelman adds a lot to the area by presenting his father's story in this manner.

FOUR of five stars.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2-fer: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Giver by Lois Lowry


First Gone Girl.

At almost a quarter of the way in, there were a few ways this story could go, the way I saw it. I won't say what ways those are because this is a book definitely better enjoyed w/ no spoilers. But I looked up and said to my husband (who already knew how it all played out), if it turns out A, then it's the lamest book ever. If it turns out B, then it's kind of brilliant. If it turns out C or D (or, later, E), then ... it's pretty lame. But maybe it will be okay.

So. Flynn chose B... kind of brilliant ;)
So it's not altogether unpredictable, of course, but it's satisfying'ish. Ish, and that's where it loses a little.  So, the first ... say quarter to third is a little slow and background'y and fine.  Entertaining, but not amazing. Then the next major part of the book is great. I love the psychology Flynn explores and how the people go about their own terrible lives. Then the final bit... like the last 15-20% was a little anti-climactic. I feel like... maybe there were better options with how to deal with all that had happened.  But it was fine. And a good, page-turning read for the weekend. :)  Overall, FOUR of 5 stars.
(As for what the book's about... I'm sure the thousand other reviews on the book can fill you in ;))


Next, The Giver

I finally read The Giver! And I'm SO glad I finally did! What a great little book. It is definitely enjoyable for kids and adults alike. This is sort of like the father of dystopia, and you can see why. (No, it is not really the "father," but is oft referred to as such in quick conversations. :)). It does SUCH a good job the whole "dystopian thing" without adding any weight at all... No unnecessary explanations weighing down the essence of the story.

I just.. I don't want to say anything about the plot because it's so nice discovering it in the book. Just, I would say, read it. I loved it.

FIVE of five stars.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

This is an interesting piece of historical fiction. It is 1686 and Nella (short for Petronella), at 18, finds herself on the doorstep of her new husband, 39, who she hardly knows, but who is a wealthy merchant in a bigger city who is supposed to help her life become new and wonderful.

However, of the many surprises Nella is confronted with when she arrives at her new home, one of the most confounding is how her new husband does not visit her bedroom and does not treat her as a husband typically treats his new wife. Instead, his gives her a replica of their home -- a "distraction" -- for Nella to furnish.

Nella seeks the services of a miniaturist to assist her and requests a few intro pieces. In return, the miniaturist sends Nella the requested pieces, along with a few unrequested pieces that seem to be exact replicas of items in Nella's new home. Does this miniaturist know the family? Has he been in the house? How did he create such perfect replicas?

Thus begins a subtle mystery as Nella both tries to stop the gifts and cannot wait for the next gift from the miniaturist, each new gift providing insight, prophesy, or explanation of happenings in Nella's increasingly complicated life.

We also meet her husband Johannes' sister Marin, an unmarried woman living in the house who almost seems more master of the house than Johannes or Nella, the "manservant" Otto, who has been educated and is more free with his relationship than Nella has ever seen before, their maid Cornelia who is not only fresh and forthright but, again, is more forward than seems proper for a maid. Add to that their "old friends" the Meermans and mysterious Jack Philip who seems to be more than the miniaturist's delivery boy, and the story has a complete and robust cast of characters, which take us through a short amount of time.

It was an enjoyable read. At times, it reads quickly and at others, Burton seems to relish the word as she slowly moves through the narrative. Overall, a satisfying read, filled with intrigue, tragedy, mystery, and love of many kinds.

Definitely recommend.. maybe a nice winter read with a cozy lap blanket and a warm fire.
FOUR of five stars.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I read this in a day. It was easy to put down while other things were happening (conversations, driving, sleeping) and then pick it right back up again as if no time had been lost. It's a fast read, interesting, and definitely a page turner. It's a book I definitely thought about while I wasn't reading it.

It's about a girl (Jam, short for Jamaica) who loses the love of her life---although she only knew him for a mere 41 days, the feelings were so strong she is completely and utterly devastated by the loss. Like, well beyond normal processing. After so much time (nearly a year) has passed and her parents and teachers and friends simply do not know what to do with her, she is sent off to a school for special people (The Wooden Barn) --- for students who are intelligent but fragile.

Jam is placed into a class, Special Topics in English, which is apparently one of the most difficult classes to be placed in, and she has not even requested such placement. Jam's roommate is supremely jealous, having attempted to take the class herself, but Jam is, frankly, uninterested in all of it. She goes because she must. There are five students in the class. Their teacher, Mrs. Q, assigns one author for the semester and requires her class to write in journals that she provides. The author is Sylvia Plath.

As the class progresses, it becomes clear that the students in the class have emotions, responses, feelings, psychologies, or something else in common with Ms. Plath, and they slowly begin to open up with each other and Mrs. Q. Of course, other very strange things are happening to the students. I will quote the publisher blurb so as not to give anything away that has not already been given: Jam and her classmates are led "into a mysterious other world she and her classmates call Belzhar[. There], she discovers a realm where the untainted past is restored, and she can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But, as the pages of her journal begin to fill up, Jam must to confront hidden truths and ultimately decide what she’s willing to sacrifice to reclaim her loss."

It's a book that falls squarely into the magical realism category, which adds just the right amount of uncertainty, mystery, and mysticism to a story that is otherwise a teen drama about friendship, love, loss, and discovery. Although I do not typically love teen romance books, I really enjoyed Wolitzer's book that is more about the loss of love and recovery than anything else. It has its flaws .. some of the trauma that others have gone through seem much more severe than Jam's, yet she continues to mope in self-obsession and self-pity -- but I also felt that was actually pretty realistic for the teenage perspective. It is rather self-obsessed and has a hard time looking outside to gain perspective. And there are some "conveniences" that are a bit eye-roll'y, but overall, as I said, I just enjoyed it. It helps that I read it so quickly, I'm sure.

THREE AND A HALF of 5 stars.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I just didn't like it. I acknowledge that it's well written, so I can't give it a terrible rating. But it's Sooooo utterly dark and angry and depressing. It's "good".... but really wasn't enjoyable for me. Maybe if I had read more uplifting books lately, I wouldn't have felt so dragged down by it, but I came off of a couple of dark, angry books and ... honestly, when I finally finished the (200 page!) book, I could hardly bring myself to pick up another book.... (so glad I chose [The Martian]!!)

It's about ... well, it's weird because it's NOT about a magic toyshop. So, yeah, there's that. There's a toyshop, but ... there's no magic there. There's a hint of maybe supernatural or gothic or something ... like 3 times. Just a hint. But that's it. And ... it's easy to chalk it up to exhaustion, imagination, stress... rather than ANYthing supernatural at all. So you think you're reading a book about magic, but it's just not.

Melanie loses her folks and has to go live with her uncle in a dirty, poor part of London. Her formerly rich and lavish life takes a severe nosedive as she attempts to navigate a world in which the patriarch is an abusive, angry, oppressive force. And poor 15-year-old Melanie struggles with not being the loved, pretty, spoiled girl she once was, as her 12-year-old brother withdraws further into himself and her 5-year-old sister essentially forgets her former life. Along with her uncle are his mute wife (who is only ever referred to as "dumb") and her two brothers, one of whom Melanie finds herself simultaneously repulsed by and drawn to. And the uncle is a toy maker who hates many of his customers, and he is obsessed with life-sized puppets, which is creepy and weird.

So yeah. It's like a creepy, weird, dark, depressing story about terrible things happening to people. Terrible things.  But yes, it is well written. Carter has a talent.

So overall, three of 5 stars. Not enjoyable, but well done, if the story sounds like your kind of thing (and it apparently is for a LOT of people who really love this book).

The Martian by Andy Weir

Coming off of a bummer of a book, I was SO pleased when I started reading The Martian and found it so very enjoyable. Sigh, yes, this is why I read Sci-Fi.

So first, I will acknowledge that this book has some "real life" inaccuracies and you definitely have to suspend disbelief... but isn't that why we read fiction? Because it's fiction? For me, any real-life inaccuracies were massively dwarfed by the sheer pleasure of reading this book.

What did I love about it? Much. For one, there's no romance! How refreshing to read something with no romantic tension, romantic triangles, sex, etc. Just good story. And not that I don't like romance in any of my books, but it gets a bit old when that's all anyone seems to write about (e.g., all those darn teen dystopias, with so much potential....).

For another, the commander of the mission is female, there's another female astronaut, the best pilot in the world is hispanic, the guy in charge is... I'm not sure but his name is Kapoor and he's not white ;), and there's also a german astronaut--like, actually German. And China is involved... and it's positive. But it doesn't feel like a United Colors of Benetton commercial - it's just how things are; it's organic. Why does that matter? It's such a hopeful view of our future, and I love that Weir wrote it. So many people feel the need to show how bleak they can get; I love Weir's optimism. Love it.

For another... I'm just so impressed with how Weir wrote an entire novel that is largely a one-man show... involving math and science talk... and yet it's SO interesting. It's accessible... and even when it's a little over the average reader's head? It's still somehow accessible and readable. (if you get tripped up in a math or science section.... go ahead and just keep reading; no need to understand the science or math of everything in here ;)). HOW is it so interesting?! So impressed.

Oh, so what's it about? Mark Watney, an astronaut from Chicago (and the University of Chicago), brilliant w/ a biting sarcastic sense of humor (IS this my husband he's writing about? ok, maybe he's not an astronaut, but everything else...... ;)) gets stuck on Mars when an evacuation goes horribly wrong. Stuck. On. Mars. Like forever away. And everyone assumes he's dead because there's no information telling them otherwise. And his team is on a ship heading back to Earth, which is a years-proposition. So what's he going to do? Try to survive. On Mars. Alone. So far away from everything and everyone he's ever known. And so progresses a novel in which Mark uses humor to diffuse complicated and horrible situation after complicated and horrible situation. And other stuff. But just read it to find out. I didn't know much about this novel before starting. You don't need to either.

Is it perfect? Nah, but it really didn't need to be. It's just pure enjoyment reading this book. Sure there were some things that I found less-than-convincing (maybe he'd be a little crazier, lose a little more of his personality after his experiences?)... but whatever. :)

I'd really recommend this to anyone. It's sci-fi that's based in reality ... this IS likely our future (well, I mean, going to Mars :)), Weir just took us there a little sooner. So, even if you think you hate Sci-fi, you might like this one anyway.

Four and a half of five stars (boosted to 5 on cites w/o halves).
So good.

PS. Matt Damen as Mark Watney? Perfect.