Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book by Colorado author Paolo Bacigalupi was recommended to me by one of the staff members at the Boulder Bookstore, and I'm intensely glad he told me about. The Windup Girl is one of the best science fiction stories I've read in years; in fact, I'd say it's the best science fiction story to come out in the last five to ten years.

Oil is a thing of the past and the genetic engineering companies have won. Set in Southeast Asia in the not-very-distant future, calories are the new fuel and corporate espionage is linked to finding and creating variant strains of food, animals, and even people. Bacigalupi expertly weaves seemingly disparate threads into a rich tapestry that crackles with a tension and electricity that surfaces with whip-crack intensity before its end.

Emiko is one of the New People, a genetically engineered creature designed and intended to serve and pleasure "real" humans at a whim. Anderson Lake is a "calorie man," an employee of one of the major genetic engineering corporations with machinations and plans that will bring him out of the spring factory he currently runs and into the upper echelons of his employer. Emiko finds herself drawn into Lake's world and at the center of warring political factions in Thai society that threaten to rip apart the Thai Kingdom forever. Racism, abuse, corruption, loyalty, and the question of what defines humanity all play central roles in this tale that echoes the tone of some of the best works in science fiction, including William Gibson's Neuromancer and Frank Herbert's Dune with elements of Blade Runner tossed in for good measure.

Bacigalupi's writing and vision possess a potency that has been lacking in science fiction of late. The Windup Girl is a story that pulls you in from the start and completely envelops the reader in its world until the last word on the last page. From Night Shade Books and available from your local, independent bookseller (shop local, shop makes a difference!)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: Devil's Plaything by Matt Richtel

Before I go any further, let me warn you: when you start reading this book, make sure you've got a lot of time. Author and journalist Matt Richtel has masterfully crafted a tale that will be very, very difficult to put down once you start reading it.

Devil's Plaything features the return of journalist/blogger Nathaniel Idle (introduced in Richtel's earlier work, Hooked) and his grandmother, Lane, who is suffering from dementia. Lane is a participant in the "Human Memory Crusade," a project designed to preserve the memories and stories of an aging generation for the future by recording them into computers. However, Idle soon discovers this project isn't quite as innocent as it appears and that is grandmother is right in the center of a national security project with far reaching ramifications.

As the story develops, the twists and turns will keep the reader turning the pages late into the night (don't say I didn't warn you) as Richtel demonstrates his keen sense for knowing exactly when to end a chapter well enough to propel you into the next one. The opportunity to put the book down and not obsess about what will happen next only occurs two, maybe three, times in the entire novel..

At first, technology seems to be the center stage of this novel, and its premise seems a little too hauntingly plausible in light of the constant access to technology today, coupled with the steady rise in the occurrence of Alzheimer's throughout the country (as discussed in here in this article and in this one), and the science in this novel is solidly researched and presented.

However, much of the story focuses on the relationship between Idle and his grandmother, a woman who is endearing and possesses a wicked insight and while at first it may seem easy to dismiss many of her apparent ramblings as an effect of the disease, all too soon it becomes apparent that she has seen and knows far more than she should. Before the end of the novel, Idle has made a successful and necessary realization that modern technology cannot and should not replace what is truly important in each of our lives: real human interaction.

From HarperCollins Publishers and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Shop local and makes a difference!)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Based on the real life case of George Edalji, Julian Barnes' Arthur & George explores the lives and relationship between these two men. With the tone and feel of a Sherlock Holmes' story, Barnes crafts a tale fascinates from the start. The story starts as the two boys grow into adulthood, each following their separate paths and separate lives; aside from when George reads The Hound of the Baskervilles, the reader is left to wonder what it is these men have in common and how their paths will intersect.

The story focuses primarily on the misfortunes of George when he is accused and found guilty of a crime he did not commit. The tacit racism prevalent in English society at the time conflicts with George's naive view of the world, which makes his plight both heartbreaking and maddening. Doyle's interest in the case proves to have ramifications beyond this particular situation, even though it is never resolved to the satisfaction of Doyle, Edalji, or the reader.

Barnes' probing of the psyches and thoughts of these two men makes for a rich and satisfying piece of historical fiction, and the narrative itself will keep you thinking long after the cover is closed. From Vintage International Books and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Shop local, shop makes a difference!)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Review: Go the F--k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach; illustrated by Ricardo Cortes

Finally, the perfect, must-have Father's Day gift: a definitely-not-for-children children's book. This wholly irreverent and fantastically funny book expresses those thoughts that every parent has had while trying to put a recalcitrant child to sleep (regardless of whether said parent wants to admit it or not).

Accompanied by lush and beautiful illustrations by Ricardo Cortes, this book has the look and feel of a traditional children's book, and the text follows the traditional rhythms of some of the best children's books written. But that is where the similarities stop. Mansbach captures perfectly the exasperation felt by parents everywhere when no matter how many stories, no matter what techniques tried, the child(ren) will simply not go to sleep.

Not for the easily offended, this book is destined to be a classic for parents, grandparents...for anyone who has ever had the experience of trying to put a child to bed and have them actually stay there. From Akashic Books and available from your local, independent bookstore.

NOTE: For a limited time, Audible, Inc. has the audiobook version of this fantastic book read by none other than Samuel L. Jackson available for free download here. Listening to it while reading it only adds to the enjoyment of the book, as Jackson's narration is absolutely 100% spot on and is an experience not to be missed. (Even though the audiobook is free, the illustrations alone make the book worth owning both.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Heist Society by Ally Carter

This is yet another book that I'm previewing for my students for the fall. I tend to not be anywhere near as familiar with books that appeal to female readers beyond Twilight which most of them have read (and I know just enough about to want to avoid reading it), so I have opted to branch out and see what else is out there. This is one I'm glad I took the time to read.

Heist Society is the story of Katarina Bishop, a member of a family with a rather long history of being professional thieves. When the story opens, Kat (as she goes by throughout the book) is attempting to leave her criminal life behind by attending a prestigious private school in the United States. Shortly after her arrival, Kat finds herself accused of a prank involving a fountain and the headmasters 1958 Porsche Speedster. The evidence against her causes her to be expelled from the school, only to find out that she was set up by her cousin and a friend of the family in order to enlist her aid in recovering a mobster's priceless art collection which was stolen and her father is the prime (only) suspect.

Katarina Bishop is a strong, believable female protagonist. Kat is trying desperately to leave her old live behind, but finds that doing so is far more difficult than she thought, particularly when it involves her family. Just enough tension exists between she and Hale, her male co-conspirator, to keep their relationship interesting without falling into the stereotypical teen romance, and the story possesses an effective pacing free from distractions or digressions. Heist Society is filled with just enough humor and suspense to propel the reader well into the next chapter and beyond.

From Disney-Hyperion Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Make a difference: shop local and shop independent!)

NOTE: Ally Carter (who is also the author of the Gallagher Girls spy series) will be appearing at the Boulder Bookstore on Sunday, June 26th at 2:00 discuss her new book in the Heist Society series: Uncommon Criminals.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

This summer I've decided to get caught up on my young adult literature as a means to make recommendations to my students next year and to see what I might be able to use in class. I came across this book at my local bookstore, but since I was short on cash, decided to borrow it from my library before making the investment. I'm actually glad I saved the money.

The premise of Divergent is a good one, however, its execution was, well...rather lacking. The book is set in Chicago sometime in the future. Society has been restructured and upon their 16th birthday, people are grouped into five factions based on an aptitude test that is meant to display whether their primary characteristics are honesty, bravery, selflessness, peacefulness, or intelligence. A few individuals display multiple tendencies, thus making them "Divergent," which is seen as a threat to the society. On her 16th birthday, the protagonist, Beatrice ("Tris") Prior is found to be Divergent, but hides it and joins the faction that dedicates itself to bravery.

The story itself is fast paced and flows well, but I repeatedly found myself thinking "Oh, I've read this scene before; it's in Hunger Games" (Suzanne Collins' very good trilogy).

And that's where it all falls apart. There are far too many similarities to Collins' work, and it ended up pulling me out of the novel more than once. While I don't mind works that are somewhat similar to one another, when the similarities are so close to make the second novel seem derivative, that's where I begin to take issue. Like Collins, the protagonist of Divergent is a 16 year old girl who becomes an enemy of the state after becoming something of an expert in armed (and unarmed) combat after previously leading a relatively obscure home life. In both novels, the female protagonist has to rescue the boy she has come to care about (a bit of a reversal on the "damsel in distress" theme). However, Collins pulls it off better and more believably whereas Roth's male character/love interest falls under the sway of the established order with a simple injection, and his too soon rescue is a bit of a letdown.

Another issue I had with the novel is that Roth incorporates religion into the novel, but too little, too late. Aside from a passing reference to her family saying grace before meals and a poster on the wall of her instructor/boyfriend, God does not enter into the picture until page 438 (the novel is only 487 pages long), yet Roth seems to want her character to have some deep and meaningful connection established. To illustrate: Tris and Tobias (her male counterpart) have been captured. Tobias has been given the injection and, now under control of the antagonist, is led away to become a part of the conspiracy to overthrow the established order. Tris, who has been shot, is placed in a glass tank that will fill with water as part of her execution (why is it no one ever chooses to just shoot their enemies and get it over with??), which references an earlier incident in which she was involved in an identical, chemically-induced, mental simulation meant to trigger fear:

"I breathe in. The water will wash my wounds clean. I breathe out. My mother submerged me in water when I was a baby, to give me to God. It has been a long time since I thought about God, but I think about him now. It is only natural. I am glad, suddenly, that I shot Eric in the foot instead of the head." (p. 438)

This particular passage jolted me right out of the story. The blatancy of the symbolism was a cold splash of water directly to the face. And why wait so long to introduce God and Tris' spirituality? Considering all that she has been through before, including this exact scenario, why would she think of God now? (Not to mention the editing error of not capitalizing "Him" as is accepted.)

Divergent showed great promise, but unfortunately, it is a promise unfulfilled. This is not to say that Divergent is a terrible novel. It isn't. There were plenty of times I found myself drawn into the story and enjoying it. In fact, fans of the Hunger Games trilogy may enjoy this since the two stories are so much alike.

Unfortunately, it was far too derivative for my taste. I can deal with stories that are similar to one another; I dislike stories that are simply mimetic. As was the case with Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, which I read shortly after reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. To this day, I have no interest in reading further in the Shannara series, and I'm not sure I see myself finishing this one either.

From Katherine Tegen Books (a division of HarperCollins Publishers) and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Shop independent and shop makes a difference!)