Comedy · Science Fiction

Year Zero

by: Rob Reid

This book was recommended to me by a friend who works at my local bookstore – I was checking out with another comedic fantasy and he saw it and immediately denounced it as just okay, then proceeded to tell me all about Year Zero, which was better and funnier and which he owned. So I put the novel I was going to buy back and borrowed Year Zero instead.

I read half of it, put it down, and then finished it today, mainly because I had started it.  The premise of the novel is enticingly funny – aliens far advanced in every facet of culture and science except music discover our music – the pop, the rock and roll, the jazz, the oldies! They’re so enamored of our music that they all download the entire collection of Earth’s songs.  This is unfortunate, because, by Earth’s laws, they soon realize they owe the citizens of Earth more than the entire wealth of the known universe.  What is there to do but call upon copyright lawyer Nick Carter?

I actually didn’t much like this book.  I didn’t dislike; it just didn’t connect with me well. Something about Reid’s sense of humor and mine didn’t quite click.  I’m not even quite sure why.  Other people have certainly found it hilarious and I could see the humor; it just didn’t actually amuse me that much.  It could just be that most of it was a little too blatant for me; I do tend to like humor that makes me think (which defeats the purpose of an escapism novel but there ya have it).

The writing itself was fairly good.  The story flows easily and even though the plot gets a little complicated at times, the world building is of sufficient quality that I never got lost or confused enough to have to reference earlier passages, which is nice.  One of the reasons I don’t read much sci-fi is that often I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information introduced. Reid does an excellent job of keeping his new worlds manageable for the reader.  The pacing was just a tad bit off at times but overall the story moves well.  It’s fairly action-based, with lots of travel and excitement and terrible things that are soon to happen!

It was told in first person, from Nick Carter’s point of view. I wish he had been developed a little more at the beginning, as there was little time for character development once the action started happening.  He was eventually likable, but I feel like he was somewhat needlessly shallow through much of the book.   My favorite character was his boss, a savvy women who I would hate to face in a legal battle-she was interesting and fun to read about.  The human characters in general were decently well-developed; the alien characters were not as consistently three-dimensional.  Several of them are given prominent roles, so it would have been nice to see them a little better developed.  Some of them served as parodies, but I think their lack of development takes away from that, at least for me.

So if you’re looking for a sci-fi comedy that pokes fun at the music industry, lawyers, and somewhat at human entertainment in general or if sci-fi comedy is your favorite form of escapism, this is the book for you.  If you’re looking for an introduction in sci-fi/fantasy comedy or if you have a very specific sense of humor, this may not be the book for you.  But if the premise intrigues you, read the first few pages.  They’re indicative enough of the rest of the book that you should be able to tell whether or not you’ll find it funny.

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Fantasy · Teen Fiction

The Last Dragonslayer

Last Dragonslayer_hires

 

by: Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer is my first Jasper Fforde book.  I know he’s been really big for a while now but I just haven’t been enticed by his novels.  I picked it up at the Texas Book Festival because, hey, he was there and the word dragon was in the title.

As with so many of my impulse book purchases, I was soon rewarded for my lack of money management. It’s the story of 15-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange, charged with managing a department of wizards in an age of declining magical power, getting caught in a land struggle between a kingdom, a duchy, and a dragon.  There is intrigue, a quest of sorts, magic, mystical beasts, and, of course, a really bad-ass Rolls Royce. Jennifer is a fantastic heroine – a practical sort with bravery and intelligence. There is no emotional dilly-dallying or faintness of heart for this heroine; she’s too busy sticking to her guns and trying to save others. If she wins her battles, it’s certainly not going to be with love. (I’m looking at you, A Wrinkle in Time.)  She remains me of Cimorene from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.*

The story moves swiftly and with ease.  The characters are engaging and fun to read about; they may not all be the best developed of characters-some are well-developed, some seem like they are going to develop in further books, and some are not at all-but the less developed characters play into the fantasy extraordinarily well.  (We’ve all felt like we were dealing with King Snodd IV at one time or another.)

Fforde also sets the story in a world very much like modern-day London and uses it to poke fun at society a time or twenty, which places a nice layer of humor over the entire story.  Probably more so if the reader is actually from England, but the English and American societies are alike enough for it to translate well.

So, readers, if you like strong heroines, well-paced adventures, enjoyable young adult fantasy novels in a modern-day setting, really awesome heroines, and a good time with an easy read, this is the book for you.  If you’re looking for a traditional fantasy epic, action-packed, fight-orientated novels, or something to challenge your sense of reality and self, this, alas, is not the book for you.

*Cimorene, with her practical, take-charge-of-my-own-life,-thank-you-very-much personality, is in the list of top 5 book heroines I want to be.  If you haven’t read The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, you certainly should read the first book as soon as humanly possible.

Uncategorized

Little Free Library

Sometime during last summer, I heard of an awesome initiative called Little Free Library; see  http://www.littlefreelibrary.org/.  I very much wanted to start my own Little Free Library, but, alas, I live in an apartment complex and couldn’t install one in my front yard.  But than an idea, a brilliant, colossal idea!, came to me this fall. One of my friends received a grant to start a community garden last spring and what better place to put a community library than in a community garden?  I e-mailed my friend and asked if she and the other garden cofounders would be interested in having a nature-based Little Free Library in their garden and they loved the idea. (If you’re into nature or food and live in a city, I would highly recommend looking for opportunities to get involved with a community garden, by the way.)

When I came home for Christmas, my dad and I used some leftover plywood and building supplies – between my parents’ ranch, rental properties, and the house we just built for Grandma, there are plenty of construction materials around – to build the Little Free Library.  It took about 8 hrs, in total, and all we bought was a set of hinges from Lowe’s.  My dad did most of the cutting – our circular saw is too heavy for me to manage safely and I have a weird fear of table saws, so I only used the jigsaw.  We put it together using screws and then caulked all the joints to make it absolutely waterproof. I didn’t do a very good job cleaning up the caulk, but it’s going to be painted so it should be fine. (If we had been staining instead, we would have used wood glue to seal the joints.)

We didn’t put any plexiglass in the door; it was the one component we lacked and since we finished it Christmas day, all the hardware stores were closed.  The plans were a good starting point, but we had to refer several times to the pictures available online and I relied heavily on my dad’s carpentry knowledge to fill in the blanks. Also, we used 3/4″ plywood instead of 5/8″, so we had to alter the final measurements slightly.

I’m really excited that we built this and ecstatic that I’m able to get involved with the Little Free Libraries! Building one may not be practical in terms of time, material, knowledge, and/or equipment but if you know of one around you I do encourage you to take or leave a book.

The garden wanted to paint and install the library in order to make it a community project, so I just have the “unfinished” finished project right now, but here it is!

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The next steps are to drop it off for painting, install, register, and then fill with nature and gardening books! While the gardeners are painting, I’m going to ask local nurseries and bookstores if they would like to donate a book or two to the library.  I’ll try to keep the blog updated as this progresses further.

Classics

Les Miserables

Les Miserables (Everyman's Library)

by: Victor Hugo

I finally finished Les Miserables! This is a cause for celebration! (I also barely squeaked by my deadline of finishing it before I had a chance to see the movie, but, hey, I did it!)

If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s the story of Jean Valjean, a French convict sentenced to 5 years for the crime of stealing bread to feed his starving family. Well, it’s generally his story. Jean Valjean’s life intertwines closely with Fantine, a woman impregnated and abandoned by her lover; Cossette, Fantine’s child, taken in by the treacherous Thenardier family; Javert, a police inspector who knew Jean Valjean in his galley days; and finally, Marius, a revolutionary young man who falls in love with Cossette.  All these characters are central to the novel.

Hugo uses the novel to, at its most basic level, explore notions of good and evil in context of French society.  He writes about the poor and, somewhat but not entirely consequently, the miserable.  He examines poverty in all its variations, from those who are poor by choice, such as Jean Valjean and Marius, to those who are poor by circumstances beyond control, like Eponine and Father Mabeuf.  He explores at length moral decisions and the factors influencing such decisions, of the lack of opportunity versus the lack of character. Anyway, there’s much more to this book than I could possibly understand in one reading or dissect in one blog post. Rest assured, though, after reading it, I understand why it’s such a highly regarded classic. The themes and morals are highly relevant to our time, and, I surmise, most, if not all, societies in the world today.

I really enjoyed the translation I read – the Everyman’s Library version with the translation by Charles E. Wilbour.  It was a more formal translation, close to the language of the time – I dislike modern translations.  I would recommend reading with a dictionary by your side, as I ran across more than a few words I didn’t know.  (This normally doesn’t happen to me; I like to imagine I have a fairly extensive vocabulary!)

This book was definitely a chore to get through.  Unless you have a strong background in French history or a deep and abiding interested in French society at the time, save yourself the trouble and find an abridged version.  As much as I admire Hugo’s work, I could have lived without the 30 page asides on the French sewer system, French slang, the numerous histories of buildings and street corners, and many, many other topics.  Other readers I have talked to have all given me advice on how to self-abridge the novel; everything from “Oh, skip the parts on the history of Paris” to “I just read the parts where I saw the characters’ names.” I tried my best to read every single word, but I’m not going to lie: there were parts, nearly entire sections sometimes, where my eyes glazed over and I fear I retained little.

Annoyingly, there was a fair amount of untranslated French. Between that and the vocabulary used, this may be a good book to read on an E-reader if you have one.

If you, like me, have trouble keeping the characters and plots straight, may I recommend the wonderful website Wikipedia?  Sometimes when I’m reading a book for thought provocation rather than plot I look up the plot line beforehand and refer to the Wikipage as necessary in order to keep everything straight in my head. This obviously isn’t for everyone but it can be really helpful.  My final recommendation is to spend some time looking for a translation you like and can get absorbed into.  If a modern translation is your thing, go for it! This book is too long to suffer through a disliked style.

Les Mis was a lot of work to read but it was worth it. I just finished, so I’ll need more time to process the novel as a whole but I’m really glad I was able to read it. I am already enjoying thinking about the characters and themes presented.  If you enjoy classics, have a desire to read it after seeing the movie – which I am incredibly excited about – or want a novel examining social issues than I would highly recommend the abridged version of this book.  If you want to read a fiction that examines French society of the early 19th century or have a strong desire to immerse yourself and your thoughts into one book for an extended period of time, the unabridged version is the book for you.

Drop a line in the comments if you’ve read Les Miserables and know a good translation – especially a good modern translation and/or abridged version – or if you’ve got thoughts on the novel or new movie – I’d love to hear from y’all!

Contemporary Literature · Western

Country of the Bad Wolfes

by: James Carlos Blake

I did a short stint working events at a local bookstore in between graduating and my current job.  I was working this event – it was marketed as mystery – and I remember thinking, oh god. Wolves is misspelled.  A bad mystery author I’m going to have to sit through for a whole hour.  I set up the room, met the author briefly, and then sat down as he did his spiel, which was fairly interesting and short.  And then he begin to read.  James Carlos Blake is a fabulous storyteller. He has a gorgeous voice which lent itself well to the style of his book.  I became intrigued by the story and. after he was done, picked up a signed copy of the book to read.  (For what it’s worth, I believe that was the only time I’ve ever done so.) And then I settled in to read the book, which I did in two chunks several weeks apart.  I loved this book.

Blake is both a master storyteller and a fantastic writer.  Reading the book made me feel like I was listening to him tell it.  It’s an epic saga, based partly on his own relatives, telling the story of the Wolfe family as they make their way, through generations, from England to New England to Mexico to, finally, South Texas.  The family is largely morally straight but legally questionable and they play by the rules of the old West. Though the plotline of the book is focused heavily on the Wolfe family, Blake delves into the overarching issues of the time, like the Mexican-American War, class tensions, and Mexican politics. I truly enjoyed the way he combined knowledge of the time period with the actions of his characters to give the story historical depth. There are a few more graphic scenes, both violent and sexual.  Though the reader learns and follows the characters, we don’t quite get intimate with them. It works, in a John Wayne-type of way; never do we feel the characters are truly emotionally vulnerable to the reader, but never is it necessary to the story.

Read this book if you love old-fashioned storytelling, epic sagas, tales of the West – it’s not quite a Western, but it feels much the same in terms of actions and character types – or if you’ve been looking for that elusive crossover between Westerns and literature.  (I have no idea why this was marketed as mystery.)  If you’re looking for a Western genre book, light reading, or something purely action packed, this may not be the book for you.

Classics · Science Fiction

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time by: Madeleine L’Engle

We read this for my book club this month (and yay! I actually read and finished the book for my book club!). Surprisingly, I’ve never read this before.  I believe at one point I read the first chapter of one of the sequels but it didn’t make much sense to me so I put it back down.  When I was younger – I think I was in elementary school? – I had very little tolerance for science fiction.  I don’t have much more tolerance for it now, but I’m trying to open my mind.

Anyway, like I said, it was the book of the month.  I started it today during lunch, actually, then decided to see how far I could get before the club started, and then decided that I was going to finish it and be late to book club.

It tells the story of Meg Murry, a young girl whose physicist father has gone missing.  She, her brother, and a new friend, chosen because of their abilities, strike out with the help of some mysterious not-quite-witches to bring him back.

As you can tell, it’s a pretty quick read – short and the writing is straightforward.  I want to describe it as simple, but it’s not.  There’s nice vocabulary and some fairly complex concepts that are delivered so well that is nearly effortless for the reader to absorb them.  You don’t really realize the importance of what you’ve read until the end, when you stop and process it.

This is a children’s book and it feels a bit fairy tale-ish in its setup.  The action and the plot move quickly and without complications or much deviation from the main storyline.  There’re familiar themes, like the presence of three, gifts from powerful beings, and rules that must not be broken.   It’s this familiar structure that allows the easy delivery of complex concepts. It’s a bit ingenious now that I think about it.

I wasn’t expecting this to be as much of a children’s book as it is, which was perhaps an odd expectation on my part. I think I was expecting a more adult presentation on the issues presented in this book, rather than the kid version of things.  (Don’t get me wrong, though! Children’s books are often rather exceptional at presenting complex issues; this one does so rather brilliantly.)

I must say, the writing is excellent and the characters, though sometimes odd, are likable.  They vary on the believable range, but it’s science fiction, so put away your skepticism! I really liked that Meg has an affinity for math and science.  I wish she had been able to use that affinity to her advantage more throughout the book, but there you have it.  Meg is well-developed; the rest of the characters have well-developed actions and dialogue.  They’re well sketched, too, but have little room for development themselves; much of the story is given to plot narrative.

Truthfully, though, I feel a bit unfulfilled after reading this book.

Don’t get me wrong, I was absorbed in the story and really enjoyed it, but it feels like there’s something missing.  It could be that the succeeding books fill in something; given that the plot is not completely resolved within the first book and neither are several important questions, I think this is highly likely. Or it could be that the book’s plot moved so quickly; I think I would have enjoyed spending a little more time with the characters and getting a more intimate glimpse of Meg’s growth throughout the story. It’s a little more plot-driven than I normally prefer; once the action started the book just sped towards the ending.

Overall, this is a rather excellent children’s science fiction novel and a very quick read.  This is a must read for serious science fiction or children’s literature fans.  If you want an excellent quick read, something to share with a kid, or are looking for a starter sci-fi, this is also good. If you’re big into character development and want to spend quality time with your heroine, this, alas, is not the book for you.

If you’ve read or want to read this book, drop me a line in the comments with thoughts or questions!