The Merry Spinster

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Review #40: Fiction

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg

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This collection of stories will feel at once familiar and darkly, deliciously fresh.

Though fairytales and fables, these stories carry such a refreshing air of reality. They drip with a dark, sinister unpredictability that flows through our real lives. Ortberg forces the reader to see each retelling and re-imagination through a new lens, one that refocuses the otherworldly and fantastic as real. Remove the preconceived idea that mermaids aren’t real, that animals don’t talk or interact with each other in friendships, or that little boys don’t turn into swans; what do their lives look like? They are as complex and flawed as our own. And they can be similarly heartbreaking and cruel.

With every story, we are given a new glimpse into worlds and situations we thought we already knew. Readers will feel the heart-string tugs of the stories that inspired this collection, nostalgia working to convince us that we know how each story ends. But Ortberg rewrites the script, opening our narrow perceptions to something more – cruel realities of these fairytales we’ve come to love. What may be expected to tarnish the memory of beloved fairytales and fables ultimately elevates them, allowing these stories to grow and mature with the audience.

Ortberg does not shy away from the harsh and unfair or unsavory elements of life, and allows these aspects to shine in this collection. She has given us our favorite stories, with an honest, relatable tone that is unencumbered by preconceived notions of a “happily ever after” ending. We, and our stories, are better for it.

4 out of 5 stars

*Cover image from Amazon

 

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Otherworld

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Review #38 Fiction

Blogging for Books #12

Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

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This book caught my eye based on so many connections people were making to Ready Player One, which I adore, so I couldn’t pass this one up when the chance to read and review came my way. I’ll say that if you also find yourself reading this book based on your interest in RPO, there are many similarities, so you’ll probably like this one.

My main interest in RPO was the 80s pop culture and nostalgia, which is something that Otherworld lacks. This is not a love letter to the videogames or movies or music of the 80s, but it is a really interesting look into the future of videogames, and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Segel and Miller create a not-too-distant future where VR is taking over the real world, creating a world that people never want to leave – which becomes part of the problem.

Segel and Miller pull in other virtual reality troupes we’ve seen before – dying in the game could kill you in real life, an evil corporation (creatively* called “The Company”) putting profits over people’s lives, parallels made to a “Quest” or “The One” coming to save the world. The Company is a semi-faceless organization, we are given a few of the higher ups and some of the low level pawns in the overall scheme, but essentially, it’s a large, overarching nemesis that feels impossible to beat. Some of these low level people believe they are doing the right thing, they believe the Company will use its technology to help people, to make progress in quality of life, but are in the end naïve to the desire for power and money.

Otherworld begins a unique conversation about artificial intelligence, and what it could be someday. Segel and Miller create VR filled with AI that is so advanced, it’s nearly human. These entities exist only in Otherworld, but they have their own wants, and needs, and experience their own pain. This brings up so many questions about AI and what is ethical, concepts of God-like creation, and what existing truly means. Are these entities “alive,” does Otherworld belong to them? They live and breathe and breed in this world – does that not make Otherworld their own reality? And who decides? This concept, and these questions, is really what make Otherworld different from other videogame stories. Segel and Miller take VR to a new level and spark some deep and difficult ideas.

Throughout there is some really good action. The story builds and ends with a few realizations, gun fights and fleeing, and ends on enough of a cliffhanger to set up sequels. A few loose ends are left dangling – who runs the Company? How can they be stopped? After some of the breakthroughs with the technology, are they not just more invested in their goal now? And how far are they willing to go to reach them? Segel and Miller definitely pique an interest in reading further.

With any VR story, the world building is extremely important. Segel and Miller do a decent job of creating and describing Otherworld. We have to understand various aspects of the VR in order to follow our main characters through the world and understand all the creatures they come in contact with. Unfortunately, they do a lot of bouncing around in Otherworld; it becomes a bit hard to keep up. At times it’s difficult to understand where the characters are, who is in charge of the territory they are in (these are entities that naturally exist in Otherworld – the Children and the Elementals), what vice the territory provides (each seems to speak to a vice that people cannot partake in in reality – sex, drugs, gluttony, murder, etc.), and how they got there/how they move on. Though many things within Otherworld are fleshed out, many more questions exist. Some of the stops in each territory are long and detailed – we understand why our characters are here and what they will get out of the journey – others are short and feel thrown in without much thought which really hurts the flow of the story.

Overall, I think the time and attention to detail in a VR universe was successful, the characters were interesting and had a report that kept the story moving through dialogue and action, and the concepts surrounding AI were fascinating and left me asking even bigger and deeper questions. Otherworld is a strong start to this series.

*Please note the sarcasm.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

The Invisible Library

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Review #37 Fiction

Blogging for Books #11

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

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The premise of this book had me from the get go. It just jumped out as something that encompassed so many of the things I enjoy about reading: fantasy, adventure, literature, mystery, romance, escapism. And all of those things come through in Genevieve Cogman’s first installment of the Invisible Library novels. If you enjoy Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, The Librarian/ The Librarians, or V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, you will be pulled headfirst into Cogman’s world.

Irene works for a mysterious library. Tasked with finding a dangerous book from an alternate London, Irene must take a new library recruit, Kai, on his first field mission. Their mission becomes beyond complicated when they arrive to find the book has already been stolen by a deadly underground society. Along with the threat of a legendary enemy of the library, Irene and Kai may not make it out of the chaos-infested London with the book, much less alive.

Cogman weaves an intricate tale filled with an eclectic cast of mythical and fantastic characters, including werewolves, vampires, fae, and dragons. There’s an element of steampunk just light enough to mingle with the classic detective narrative and make something fresh and funky. The alternate London that the story inhabits is beautifully rendered by Cogman, incorporating the dark and gloomy, foggy, cobble-stoned streets and the air of mystery surrounding the city.

Throughout, we’re taken on a bumpy Great Detective story, with twists and turns that shock the reader as much as Irene and her cohorts. Though this case is eventually solved, we’re left with a bit of cliffhanger, a whetted palate, wondering just what Alberich (a notorious Library enemy) is up to, how the Library came to be, and how Irene fits into the puzzle.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com
*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Dark Matter

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Review #33: Fiction

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

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This book is a complete and total sci-fi, multidimensional, breakneck mind f*** from start to finish. And I mean that in the best possible way.

It’s hard to even describe how insanely interesting this book is. Much like the brand new ideas filling its pages, the right words are not yet available to praise it enough. The best I can do is tell you I read the whole thing in one day. Every time I stopped, I just couldn’t manage to do something else. I HAD TO KNOW what was going to happen.

Blake Crouch begins with the story of an everyday guy, in an everyday world, doing everyday things. Then BAM! Something not-so-everyday happens and everything goes off the rails. Jason Dessen is kidnapped, given a strange drug, and wakes up to a life that is not his…or so he thinks. Dessen then spends possibly lifetimes attempting to figure out where he is, who he is, when he is and how to get back to the where, who, when he remembers. The always-hard-to-comprehend idea of alternate realities, different versions of ourselves, splitting into someone(s) different after every decision we make is surprisingly easy to follow in Crouch’s story.

I have never been so completely engrossed in a story and world that is so impossibly possible. Crouch sets a new bar extremely high for any alternate reality sci-fi novels that come next. Literally spirally into infinity Dark Matter is a roller coaster ride with unimaginable twists and turns. You won’t see them coming and you’ll eagerly await the next.

My recommendation is to not read this all in one sitting, as I did, in order to enjoy the thrill of it longer, though I don’t think you’ll be able to restrain yourself.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

Armada

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Review #29: Fiction

Blogging for Books #10

Armada by Ernest Cline

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I am a HUGE fan of Ready Player One and could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Armada when it came out. Now, Ready Player One is much more focused on ‘80s pop culture as a whole: the music, the movies, the games, the style, etc — which is why I dug it so much. I was born right at the end of the era and sometimes feel I was born a little too late. ‘80s pop culture runs through my veins. I knew Armada is set in the current day, and that it is much heavier on video game knowledge and interest rather than strictly ‘80s culture, but nonetheless, it did not disappoint.

The story revolves around Zack Lightman and his friends who are high school-aged kids that are obsessed with two online multiplayer games; ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA. Both games focus on the human race defending itself against an alien invasion — ARMADA focuses on air defense and TERRA FIRMA on ground defense. Players remote-pilot unmanned drones in ARMADA and unmanned ATHIDS in TERRA FIRMA. Because I’m not a heavy gamer, there are definitely some aspects of Armada that went over my head a little. Some of the gamer language and slang was unfamiliar to me, and some of the descriptions of the games themselves as well as technology and materials used in the games were harder for me to visualize. However, Cline does a pretty good job of making this world and the concept accessible to everyone, and definitely to those who are already gaming nerds.

At the beginning of the book, Lightman notices a spaceship that looks a lot like the alien crafts in ARMADA flying over his school. Chalking this up to too much playing time, as well as some inherited insanity (his father was convinced of a video game/government training program to defeat real alien invasion using civilians — a lot like the idea behind Ender’s Game which Cline touches on several times throughout the book). Zack’s father was killed on the job when Zack was only an infant.

Eventually things happen that Lightman cannot easily explain away, and he and his friends (some of the best ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA players in the world) have to come together to figure out if Zack’s father’s theory holds any water…and if it does, what that means for them and the survival of the planet. If aliens were attacking, would a world full of gamers be enough to stop them? Would civilians trained to fight with nothing more than video games step up to the challenge? And if a government cover up were true, what actually happened to Zack’s father all those years ago?

There are a ton of ‘80s (and ‘90s) references thrown into this book, from old-school video games, to movies and music, and books. Cline once again uses this pop culture to drive his plot, giving us glimpses into his inspiration for the book, his characters, and also just throwing us a big nostalgia party. He references great hair metal bands; movies and TV shows like The Karate Kid, Star Trek,  E.T., Star Wars, and The X-Files (and on and on); and movies like Men in Black, Contact, and The Last Starfighter. This book brings back some great decades of pop culture and ties it to current-day gaming and the continued idea (and question) of whether or not the truth is out there…

Armada is action packed, fun from beginning to end, and a true first-person like book that turns the reader into Zack Lightman. Cline makes you feel like not only are you along for the ride, but you just might be the one driving the ship.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Martian

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Review #27: Fiction

Blogging for Books #8

The Martian – Andy Weir

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The Martian is a bestselling novel and a hit blockbuster film…and for good reason. Weir creates a fascinating cast and throws them into a not-so-sci-fi setting. As humans, we’ve always been curious. We’ve explored and traveled and asked questions about everything since the beginning of time. The universe, outerspace, is no exception. Even today we’re exploring the planet of Mars nearly to the degree that Weir imagines in his novel.

On top of an exciting and action packed space thriller, The Martian is both funny and endearing thanks to the group of characters Weir creates. Mark Watney, the astronaut that is stranded on Mars after a dust storm where his crewmates think him dead and must leave to save themselves, is smart, courageous and, at times hilariously human. Everyone can relate to being in a situation where they have no idea what to do, how to start accomplishing the task they must complete, and must dig deep within themselves to succeed. Mark Watney is everyman, which allows any reader to relate to him, and become engrossed in his story of survival.

The only criticism I could possibly find with the text is that it is very science and math heavy. I understand the need to have these details to really create an immersive and realistic story about outerspace and rocketships. A friend of mine described this book as “Math, Math, Science, Explosion, Math, Science, Dad Joke.” She wasn’t too far off. There is a lot of heavy mathematics and science equations and descriptions that at times took me out of the story and felt almost as if I was skimming a text book. However, the overall story, plot, and character development that surrounds these passages more that make up for the glazed over reading I had to do to get through them.

Again, this book is a bestseller, a huge blockbuster film…you don’t need me to tell you to read it. But you should.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Afterworlds

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Review #16: Fiction

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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*I received this book as an advanced reader copy from Book Expo America in New York in May. The hardcover will be available 9/23/14.

I absolutely loved Uglies which I read for the first time this summer, and Scott Westerfeld quickly became an author I would read anything by. I was so excited to get this advanced copy at BEA I don’t know how I went so long without reading it. It looks daunting, what with the 600+ pages and all, but it’s a quick, fun and engaging read and in no way felt like it dragged on. So let’s get into what makes Westerfeld’s newest novel so great.

First of all, the premise/execution of it are phenomenal. The book is a novel within a novel essentially. One story line is about Darcy, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate who has written this amazing book (Afterworlds) and sold it for over $100k to a New York publishing house. She moves to New York to work on her edits and to write a sequel (which is part of her contract) and begins meeting YA authors and going on book tours and learning about life in NYC. Darcy’s story revolves around new relationships and her dreams and career verses her parents’ dreams for her to attend college regardless of her writing career. She has a younger sister, Nisha (who is one of my favorite characters) who acts as the middle man between Darcy and her parents and also as Darcy’s financial adviser as she starts living on her own in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

The other aspect of the book is Darcy’s novel itself, which revolves around Lizzie dealing with the blurring of lines between life, death and the afterlife. Lizzie endures a near-death experience and finds herself being able to pass into the afterlife, and interact with ghosts while dealing with her own relationship with her divorced parents, her mother’s childhood secret, and dating a death god. These parts of the book incorporate the Hindu religion in ways that are truly unique in the YA market right now, and blend with the characters from the other story, Darcy’s story, as she is a young Indian girl whose family (loosely) follows Hindu traditions.

The way these two stories melt together is perfect. They are presented in alternating chapters, and at first I thought it would be off-putting, as if I was picking up a different book every chapter. However, we read about Darcy’s thought process through her rewrites in her story and then understand why certain things are happening in Lizzie’s story. They play off of each other in ways that I was not expecting and truly tied both stories, both girls and their struggles with growing up, dealing with secrets, and navigating new relationships, together.

Westerfeld is an imaginative and inspiring writer. Not only did I enjoy both stories, I related to both girls’ struggles in different ways, and he brings much needed diversity to the young adult market. He gives us an Indian protagonist, themes of Hinduism throughout both stories, and two strong, independent and fleshed out female main characters. What he also does is give us both a heterosexual love story and a homosexual one, and the truly amazing part is that it is all woven together seamlessly. It all makes sense, it all feels right and it made me feel that much closer to his characters. Westerfeld has written a novel that the YA market has been missing for far too long; it is everything a modern young adult book should be–diverse, insightful, accepting, thought-provoking and relatable.

I want to give it to everyone I know and tell them to read it now. Westerfeld does so much in these 600+ pages: he pokes fun at the YA writing community; he highlights the publishing industry and its triumphs and shortfalls; he tackles death, murder, and loss; growing up and moving on; following dreams; new friendships and new romantic relationships; and gives a voice to minority subjects and characters with his inclusion of Hinduism and LGBT themes. It’s an important work for YA and is brilliantly executed by an author that I didn’t think could get any better, but with Afterworlds, Westfeld has truly outdone himself.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars