Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Most Disappointing Read of 2015

As you can see by the title I have some strong feelings about this book. Some strong, negative feelings. I'm just not sure if I want to say this book is bad or just okay. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The premise of Armada is something very similar to movie The Last Starfighter. In both stories a young man who is good at a video game (arcade games in The Last Starfighter and computer games in Armada) gets recruited by a secret organization, who was using the game to train and recruit people, to fight aliens in space and Earth using the technology that was in game. The difference between that movie and this book is that in Armada its not the 80's but modern times, though the history of using video games to recruit people does go back to arcade games in the book, and in Armada the alien invasion directly affects and comes to Earth whereas in The Last Starfighter the fight is way out in space against an enemy that may affect Earth if they are not stopped.

This similarity should not be a major problem since many a story in the history of storytelling begs, borrows, and steals from each other. There is nothing new under the sun. This is especially true of Ernest Cline and his love for Geek culture and the 1980's as well as making video games more a part of a person's life than just entertainment, as seen in his first book Ready Player One. It seems like the perfect fit for Mr. Cline to take the premise of The Last Starfighter, where video games have a direct and significant impact to our world, and give it his own twist. It seemed like an interesting idea. I had such high hopes for Armada. I wanted it to be as good as Cline's first book.

It was not.

Armada stands on its on legs as being a truly disappointing read. The comparison between The Last Starfighter, though fitting for Cline's literary milieu, was too on the nose. If you have never seen the movie then I can understand how this book might be fun to read. But with video games becoming a greater part of people's lives, to the point that e-sports is getting ESPN recognition, this book seems to have come a bit too late. The story is not only too tongue in cheek in borrowing from The Last Starfighter but this kind of story has been done to death in all mediums from TV, movies, and even in video games themselves.

Another major problem I had with this book was the ending (what a surprise). Armada is written in such a way that it seems self-contained. A one and done story, not the beginning of a series and yet the open ended-ness of the book seems to beg for the next stage of the saga that will never come. I'm not sure if Cline is going to write any more books concerning this story and if he doesn't then the ending to Armada, though the most fitting for the story, is too open about the possibilities. The ending seemed like it wanted to leave the reader with deep questions to ponder about the future of mankind if it was put in this particular situation but instead I was left with not questions at all. I was only left with apathy.

So I guess this book was okay. Or bad. Somewhere in between those two. Either way I would not recommend you read it. Go read Cline's first book Ready Player One instead.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Dune

This is the most influential science fiction novel of all time and you still haven't read it yet. It's the story of a desert landscape and desert people, who must wear special suits to retain the moisture of their bodies, living on a planet with the most valuable substance in the universe that basically allows for interstellar travel while the rest of the political powers in the galactic empire fight for control of this desert planet. If none of that means anything to you, if you cannot make some connections between the world of the book and Earth of today, then where have you been living? Do you watch the news? This book is dripping with relevance for our modern day like the ocean is wet with the salty liquid state of H20. This is an important book! But don't my word on it.

"Like the best science-fiction and fantasy novels... there is little that is cute or cuddly" 
    -Jon Michaud, The New Yorker

"Words worth remembering in the age of Obama." 
    -Sam Jordison, The Guardian

"Good book"
    -David, Amazon

"The story is fantastic, but the writing will always remain unbearable"
    -Bookworm Sean, Goodreads

"I loved it but is the rest of the series worth reading?"
    -CHERNO-B1LL, reddit
My overall review for this book is: it's good. It was difficult to read at times and the plot favored brief description of action instead of the action itself which kills the pacing of the book but the overall world Frank Herbert has built along with the characters that inhabit it are interesting, well written, and very deep. It is a vibrant future full of humanity, spice, and religion as oppose to your typical sci-fi future of metal and machines. This book is worth reading and if you fall in love with it then by all means continue on with the series. I enjoyed it but did not feel the need to read any further.
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I hope you had as much fun reading this review as I did writing it. Be on the lookout for a new review next Friday from my top reads of 2015 list. Also on Wednesday there will be an extra review over the most disappointing book I read from last year. Have a good Friday.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Story Craft-- Why Endings Are Important

these are the facts
Without a shadow of a doubt, without fault or error, endings are the only thing that can make or break a story to the point of ruining the entire experience. Even more so than sloppy or boring characters, a slow or confusing plot, a bad ending can make a story go from being good to becoming terrible. I know this may seem obvious or you may immediately refute such a claim, and that is okay. A story is like going on vacation, the beginning and middle can be rough, flights delayed or realizing you forgot your phone charger at home but if you make it to your destination then the whole trip was worth while. So I would like to show you an example of how a bad ending can ruin what is, for the most part, a good story and how a good ending can make a somewhat tedious, and at times uninteresting, story worth reading. 

THE BAD ENDING

The Dragonriders of Pern-
This story, this world, should have been the greatest story I have ever read. It checks off all the boxes for things I love in stories: dragons, space exploration, time travel, interesting social/economic/technological understandings. This story is the ultimate bridge between fantasy and science fiction and for most people is a beloved series of books. Not so for me. In a series of 22 novels spanning a history of 2500 years I have only read the first three books because the ending of that original trilogy did not live up to the world and the characters that Anne McCaffrey's had created. The ending just sort of sputters on, hinting at what might come, while allowing the conflicts of the past to just be over. It seemed that McCafferey was more interesting in the larger narrative and forgot about the story she was writing. The first two of the original trilogy: Dragonflight and Dragonquest, develop not only the world and the social/economic issues along with the larger physical danger that makes the need for dragons so important but also the characters that live in this world and grow through the trials and solutions to the problems they face. White Dragon, the third book, pushes those characters aside in favor of younger characters. This would not be a problem especially in light of the larger story, and yet it fails because the novel has no story of its own. Instead White Dragon becomes part resolution for the previous two books and part bridge book to set up the rest of the series that followed from this story. A bridge does not an ending make. A bridge is not a destination, just another part to the journey. It is a non-ending and for me that is a bad ending. I felt cheated of an ending even if it meant there would be a new beginning in the next part of the series. This 'bridge work' did not make me want to keep reading. It made me feel like I wasted my time reading the first two books which were good reads. I wanted to like these books and certainly many people do and would disagree with my assessment but for me the whole story was ruined by the lack of an ending.

THE GOOD ENDING

The Martian Chronicles-
This novel did not start out as a single story. It was cobbled together by Ray Bradbury from his many short stories about Mars, through rewrites, into a more cohesive, single story. From chapter to chapter the story of Mars, from the first expedition and the extinction of the Martians to the colonization in earnest of Mars by humanity, jumps from character to character or sometimes only a vignette of the scenery, while almost never returning to the same characters from previous chapters. Each chapter, because of the way the book came together, tells its own story within the grander story of Mars. Some of these story/chapters are interesting and some are tedious and dull and so whether each chapter is good or bad they are over quickly giving the reader relief from the bad chapters while making the reader long for more of the good. This make the novel, especially if a majority of the stories are not interesting to you, difficult to read. It was tempting to set the book down and never finish it. It didn't feel worth the effort to reach the end because the uninteresting was outweighing the chapters that were engaging. But the ending to this book is worth it. Up until the last paragraph of the story I was glad to just be done but the very last sentence of the story made the entire book worth reading. Even if I reproduced the sentence here it would not have the impact and power that it does at the end of the novel. Not that this was on purpose by Bradbury but the effort of reading those grating, uninteresting chapters, made the reward of reading that last line in the context with the novel such a pleasure. It changed my entire outlook on the story,which had been negative almost from the start. I love this novel.

Ultimately these two examples won't mean as much to you until you read them and I recommend that you do read them both. You may love The Dragonriders of Pern and want to read the rest of the series but I don't think you will hate The Martian Chronicles. My point is that endings are powerful for stories, so much so that they can effect and change the mind and feeling of the reader towards the entire experience.
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I hope this has been fun and even more so I hope you have a greater appreciation for stories through analyzing the endings of stories. There will be more Story Craft post to come so be on the look out. Happy hump day.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Weekly Update

Coming up this week:
~Tomorrow, Story Craft-- Why Endings Are Important
~Friday, review over Dune

Exciting stuff. Comment, share, let me know what you think.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Bleak Future for Everyone!

I think when asked the question pertaining to entertainment, "What are you in the mood for?" the usual answer is "something light, or funny, or fun." Funny and fun are two very enjoyable categories but sometimes you want something else. Something heavier. You feel like putting aside that milk chocolate in favor of something darker. This could be because you're already sad. Life is a constant cloudy day and you just want something to reflect your feelings. Sometimes you want to indulge in the sad and tragic because you're burned out on the fun and funny. Or maybe you're finally in the right place to watch that certain something your friend keeps recommending to you that will make you reflect on the emptiness of life and the darkness of mankind. If you are at that place to enjoy you some razor sharp commentary on life with a coat of post-apocalypse wrapped up in near future science fiction then Oryx and Crake is right for you.

The story follows Snowman as he lives in the ruins of an empty Earth. Before the 'event' that killed off humanity the world was dominated by multi-national businesses with their employees living in nice compounds separated from the rest of the world. Snowman (formally Jimmy) lived in one of these compounds where he met his life long friend Glenn who eventually goes by Crake. Acting as adviser, in the present, to the human like beings known as Crakers, Snowman undertakes a journey back to one of these now abandoned compounds to gather supplies. Along the way to the compound the reader is shown flashbacks of Snowman's childhood, college years, and early career of the time he spent with Crake and the events that led the world where Snowman now lives. Quite the cheery place we have here.

This story speculates on the future of western culture and science and asks, "What if we continue down this road? What if responsibility is abandoned in favor of advancement and comfort?" These questions are running through the mind of Crake while Jimmy follows him along, loyal and ignorant, until Crake finally decides: there is not turning back, so we must start anew. Not only is the world that Jimmy and Crake live in controlled by multinational companies, a bleak commentary on our present life, but the world that Snowman lives in, inherited, is far worse not only for its emptiness and danger but also for its likelihood of happening. The real power Margaret Atwood brings is creating not just a realistic future but one that seems inevitable. That the parts and pieces are already in place turning, moving humanity towards a population of one. And those are always the darkest and most powerful of stories. A story you not only believe could be real, for we all believe in the reality of a good story since that is what so engrosses us in the telling, but one that feels like you're living out right now.

I would like to address, as a side note, how the author talks about this novel. Margaret Atwood does not like to refer to Oryx and Crake as science fiction but rather as an adventure novel or in the genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, at least for me, is the umbrella that covers not only science fiction but also fantasy and any other fiction that steps outside of our reality even in the slightest. I think that the technology and the future setting, even in the flashbacks, all fit well within science fiction but the mood of the story, the language and focus of character and the mental process of those characters, seem firmly grounded in literary fiction. This is not really important to whether you should read this book or not and you can make your own call on what genre Oryx and Crake belongs to, it was just interesting to me.

Overall my score for this novel is: it's good. I might be a bit weird in how much I like these kind of dreary, depressing kind of stories. I know they are difficult not only in the reading but in the wanting to read them but the power and the lasting memory of such a story far outweigh those on the lighter side. Usually.
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I hope you enjoyed the third review from my top reads of 2015 list. Next week I will be reviewing what is considered to be one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written: Dune. Should be fun. Hope to see you then. Have a great Friday.


Friday, April 1, 2016

No Heroes

V.E. Schwab's super powered world is grounded in one much like our own except a bit bleaker. The mundane problems of everyday life are set alongside the possibility for humanity to achieve something more than human but unlike a comic these abilities are not gift at all.

The story follows two college friends, Victor and Eli, as they discover there are humans out there gaining special powers, known as EO's (ExtraOrdinary people), which can only be 'received' by having a near-death experience. Undertaking this dangerous experiment, with Eli going first, both friends end up with extraordinary abilities and an altered worldview. Eli is given an auto healing ability and the almost religious zeal that everyone else with abilities is evil and must be killed. Victor, unbeknownst to Eli who refused to help him, does the same experiment emerging with the ability to make people feel enormous amounts of pain with his mind. Pain enough that can kill. And that's exactly what happens. As Eli's girlfriend helped Victor with his own near-death experiment he revived and, though accidentally, killed her in the process. Victor goes to prison for her murder, thanks to Eli, and Eli continues his crusade against all EO's while Victor plots his revenge.

The greatest part of this book is the growth between Victor and Eli from friends to despised enemies. Their interaction is reminiscent of the relationship and attitude between Superman an Batman. None of the EO's exhibit powers on the same level as normal comic heroes. None of them can fly or have super strength and they are all vulnerable to any weapon a normal person would be vulnerable to. All except Eli. His healing ability means that he truly cannot die. He gains an ally in Serena; an older sister of two EO's whose power is much like Kilgrave (the Purple Man) from Jessica Jones. Her loyalty allows Eli to kill any EO's he wants and never be caught since the police will do and think whatever Serena says. Victor gains allies as well, a brute of a cell mate who is also a tech guy, Sydney the younger sister to Serena, who can bring people back from the dead, and finally a US military veteran who can go into a shadow version of reality where he can disappear and walk through walls.



Even though Victor has more allies than Eli it is Eli, with his one ally, which has the advantage. Eli sees his work as righteous, good, a correction to the order of the world, becoming the nightmare version of Superman that Batman always feared he would become. Their battle of wits, plans, and powers come together, after a very dark road, in the most sinister and satisfying way. No one is a hero here but Victor, though out for blood, seems to be the lesser of two evils who befriends genuine, good people. If you can't root for the protagonist then cheer for those that follow him, for they are better than he is and he doesn't want to kill them. Which is nice.

My overall rating for this book is that its very good. Looking back at my top reads of 2015 I think this book and the previous one I reviewed should have been number ten and nine instead of eleven and twelve. Oh well.
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I hope this second review from my top reads for 2015 has helped you in deciding what to read next. If you would like to see my top reads of last year that list it can be found here. The first review from that list is can be found here. Be on the look out for next Friday's review over Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. As much as you can have a pleasant and peaceful weekend.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Story Craft-- Why Stories Are Important

I would hope that anyone reading this would not argue that stories are devoid of importance. I also would like to assume that none of you might make that extreme argument that stories are just an extravagance that should be abandoned in favor of practical needs. Stories are a form of entertainment, this cannot be denied, and yet it is the power of entertainment that allows stories to penetrate deeper into our lives. With our mental defenses lowered we are quelled into believing a fantasy that dares not only to pass the time pleasantly but also to change our very way of thinking. Which changes our being.

Stories are sneaky. As far as fiction goes, stories are lies that we are led to believe are true as long as we are immersed in them. We know they are not true, at least as a whole, and yet we are drawn into the lives of the players who play out the scenes set in far off places, worlds unknown and unreal, or simply somewhere in your neighborhood. We know they are not true and yet we experience them as if they are. We want to believe they are true. We want to be a part of these character's lives. We want to draw closer to them, understand them, even though we will never be able to.

I had a professor in my undergrad that said the end goal of fiction, at least literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, thriller, horror, romance, etc.), was to allow the reader to gain empathy for someone else, someone different than the reader. The differences can be subtle, one small thing changed from a life that seems just like your own, or they can be vastly different in culture and understand, in what is sacred and taboo. I would argue that even in most genre fiction the goal is to show empathy and I would further argue that the medium of sci-fi and fantasy can do it better sometimes than literary fiction... but that is a topic for another day.

Stories, though, are not limited to fiction. It's the holidays, you and your family are sitting around the table. The food has been eaten or near enough, all of you are content and even restful, and your uncle nudges your dad with a long smile on his face. He begins with, "you remember that time in high school..." or "you remember when dad used to..." and you are all swept away in a story that you have heard a hundred times before. And then when that story ends another begins from across the table, and on and on into the evening, all ranging from the hilarious to the sad reminder that someone is no longer sitting at the table with any of you.

This is the power of stories. To entertain, to remind, to understand, and to make sense. To feel what others felt in their life and to grow closer to them, to understand them better by the stories they tell of the life they lived and how they perceived it. And it is because of these same reasons that the most profound writings are not in essay form but rather in stories. Religion, philosophy, and history are all best remembered not in bullet point summation but in stories. Without stories, true or false, real or imagined, we become dull people. Isolated from the rest of humanity, worn out and forgotten.

Whether than a story is about infamy or virtue all stories teach and change those that read them. So a word of caution to all you readers out there, be careful what stories you take in. Some are good, some are great, and some are just bad. I suppose its a good thing you read this blog to see which stories are which.