Why I’m Avoiding Another Trip to Maycomb: Thoughts on Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Some things are better left untouched.

If you pay any attention to the book world, you probably know that Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, has published a new book: Go Set A Watchman. Even as a large fan of TKAM after a re-read last summer, I find myself hesitant to grab GSAW. The controversy surrounding the publishing coupled with the origin of the book make me feel as though it might be a mistake.

Go Set A Watchman was Lee’s original work, offered up to a publisher. It was rejected, and an editor suggested writing about the main character as a little girl. This advice gave us To Kill A Mockingbird, taught as part of high school reading curriculum and considered a classic by most. Lee never published another work and didn’t intend to, until last year some time when the world suddenly got wind of GSAW. Though Lee’s mental state is often questioned and her attorney and others are suspected of pushing her, GSAW has been published. I’m not going to discuss the probability of these situations here. I sincerely hope that Lee hasn’t been exploited, because “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (TKAM, p. 267).

Thus far, I haven’t looked at any reviews. I read the first chapter for free when it came out. It was definitely Harper Lee style as we know and (some of us) love, but it was also a dalliance into a realm that we may not need to plunder.

For decades, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo, Atticus, and all the beloved characters of TKAM have stood the test of time. Year after year, high schoolers delve into this world of the small-town old south. Though I was born in the late 80s, I found much of my own small southern hometown lurking in the depths of Maycomb, in a manner that I couldn’t truly understand until I re-read the book last summer. There I saw the guilt, the subtle undertones of racism, tradition, and fear of change that permeate most of the folks that reside there. It is a specific state of mind I haven’t encountered elsewhere, aside from others who’ve shared similar experiences. I was caught in that state of mind myself for a while, if on the fringes more so than in the midst of it. I would characterize myself growing up as sharing a kinship with Jem, caught on the cusp of understanding and the right path, but misunderstanding the limits of my own ability to stand apart from it all.

On my second read, last summer, of TKAM, I was moved by the story. I knew Atticus, I felt the weight that rested on Miss Maudie’s shoulders, and the frustration of Scout trying to figure out just what all these adults were doing. I truly understood the magic of the scene before the jail where Scout stops a riot, and I understood the political and social machinations that made the trial even occur. The last line of the book brought tears to my eyes, as the adult me realized I had that same faith in my father — that he would be there.

I don’t want to break those characters up into different parts, where life has had them transcend into different people. Readers have stated that Atticus is a racist old man in GSAW. While this doesn’t quite jive with what he does in TKAM, and ignoring the fact that GSAW isn’t really a sequel, people do change. To fall into the trap of considering this book a sequel is to let those characters become confusing.

The thing is, I have the power to make them not change. I don’t have to read GSAW.

I don’t blame Lee, really. It’s her book and her world, and if she really did want to publish the book, then that was great for her. I don’t think we’ll ever really know the truth. I don’t think the public relations folks involved with GSAW truly understood that the general public would never not view GSAW as a true sequel, even when the situation around the book was illustrated to the public frequently. There are people who thought Titanic was just a movie.
In light of all this, I don’t think I’m going to partake in GSAW. The prices seem exorbitant, even in ebook form, and I just can’t countenance throwing money into it. I might pick up the third book, though, as outlined in this Onion article: My Excellent Caretaker Deserves My Entire Fortune. Sounds like a winner.

Mediocrity Roundup 2: The Mediocrity Strikes Back

Sometimes, books just aren’t remarkable enough to validate writing an entire blog post for each one. As such, I’ve bundled a few novel reviews together into a roundup of mediocrity, perhaps at the Just OK Corral. Wow, that was a bad joke.

Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten

Yes, that’s the name. I read Meg because I saw an ad for a book later in the series called Hell’s Aquarium. I didn’t want to start in the middle of things, so I grabbed the first book. Meg is like reading a b-grade sci-fi movie, much like a Syfy Original (think Sharknado). In Meg, an ex-navy deep submersible pilot has spent the last seven years proving that megalodons could exist in the Mariana Trench in order to salvage his conscience after an unfortunate incident. Long story short, megalodons do exist and one makes it to the surface of the ocean to wreak havoc.

Meg was a fairly decent read, even if it got a bit wild and fantastical at the end (even with a plot line like I described above, it got wild and fantastical). Don’t go into it expecting an excellent work of literature; this is a movie in a book. I’ll call this one a READ WITH CAUTION for those of you like me who like ancient animals and bad movies.

Boundary Crossed by Melissa F Olsen

Boundary Crossed is your basic urban fantasy novel, where magic and magical creatures exist in a separate, secret society alongside the normal world. The main character discovers that she is a special kind of witch after thwarting a couple of vampires trying to kidnap her niece. There wasn’t anything special about the plot to this novel, and the characterization was spotty. I will hand it to the author that she tried to make the area and characters unique and real, but it fell a bit short of total success. The plot was paced far too quickly to allow for the type of development the writer seemed to want to convey. It was amusing enough, in a potato chip fiction sort of way. I’d call this another READ WITH CAUTION, as it wasn’t too bad. Borrow, don’t buy.

Dust by Jacqueline Druga

I didn’t get through the back story before putting it down. The writing style is just not my thing. In the space of two pages, the author dramatically states “It happened…” four times. She also uses single quotation marks for emphasis. RUN.

Arena One by Morgan Rice

To create this novel, I feel the author must have binge-watched and read The Hunger Games Series, The Divergent Series, and a variety of post-apocalyptic movies involving fighting arenas. The plot is simple: after the fall of society (a war between political parties involving nukes), the main character and her sister hide out in the mountains until the sister is taken to fight in massive arena battles.

I read about half of this book before I could take no more. I don’t think the author ever actually thought about the plot at all. In this world, gas lasts forever (never breaks down) and motorcycles with sidecars can regularly drive at close to 200 mph with no issues. In this world, a 17-year-old girl can flawlessly drive a motorcycle that’s been sitting for three years without being cranked at speeds of over 120 mph, sometimes up to 200 mph, on icy roads with no incidents. She can also ram fortified muscle cars with the motorcycle, flip various cars, and ram several gates with only minor injuries, over and over again.

This book is so inexplicable; I had to put it down. Why anyone looked at this plot and said “that’s reasonable” is beyond me. Books like this make me wonder just how many authors pay for reviews. RUN.

Unholy Night by Seth Grahame-Smith

This was supposed to be an interesting take on the story of Jesus’ birth, told by an author I’ve enjoyed in the past. For some reason, however, this book didn’t quite live up to what I expected. Basically, we follow the exploits of a thief named the Antioch Ghost, who after escaping Herod’s dungeons with two fellow criminals, finds himself in a small stable in Bethlehem that is already occupied. Cue exploits loosely following history.

While I do think that it provides an interesting take of the historical aspects of politics surrounding the supposed time of Jesus’ birth, the book was just written a bit too action-esque. I felt rather like I was reading a Prince of Persia game, with odd perspective shifts (to an ibex, nonetheless). While it wasn’t bad, it was also not nearly as good as the other titles I’ve read by this author. I also thought the title was misleading. While technically, the exploits therein are not holy, the term “unholy” is associated with things of a different nature. In the end, the book tried to wax religious and philosophical, which I think was a dangerous move, but also just seemed out of place. Again, this is a READ WITH CAUTION.

So there you have it. Needless to say, I haven’t exactly been reading the cream of the crop, but some of these titles might do it for a few folks. Good luck!

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Spoiler-free Snippet

In The Martian, by Andy Weir, astronaut Mark Watney is trapped on Mars. His crew had to escape, thinking he was dead and leaving him behind. Now, he’s hoping to make contact with Earth and get rescued. The book blurb stopped me from reading this novel for about two years, but when I saw the movie trailer, I was interested (which is really weird). The book is saved by the enjoyable protagonist, whose personality and sense of humor elevate the book. I call this one a READ WITH CAUTION, as the book starts strong but loses steam over time and suffers from an abrupt, unsatisfying ending.

Here, There Be Spoilers

I first saw The Martian a few years ago, available as an ebook rental from my library. After reading the book blurb, I was unimpressed. I thought about it a few times since then, but never made the plunge. Then I went and saw Jurassic World, with a preview trailer of The Martian (movie version, obviously). And for the first time ever, a movie trailer made me want to read a book.

I suppose this shows the power of a good book jacket blurb. The Martian’s blurb shows nothing of what actually makes the book great to me–the protagonist’s personality. Mark is chosen for his mission because he’s an affable, laid-back guy who has a great sense of humor and will be easy to befriend. As such, listening to his lonely thoughts from Mars in the log-like messages that make up the book are rendered quite entertaining, rather than dull and droll.

I can’t vouch for the science in the book. It seems sound to me, but I have admittedly thought more about space being vast and beautiful than the actual realities of space travel and survival. If you’re looking for hard science, this seems to have a good dose of that sort of thing, but the author has a light hand when applying it, meaning that if you don’t really follow the process, you won’t get lost or bored reading about it. There are definitely areas where the author describes far too much, though.

Mark is written well, making me laugh out loud in several instances. I found a kinship with him, as I often find myself a bit too laid back and unserious, even in quite dire situations. It is a quite rare occasion that a book makes me laugh out loud, and this one did a few times.

After a certain point, there was so much danger that it began to get stale. While I understand that space and Mars aren’t cocoons of safety, the book may have benefited from fewer instances of absolute catastrophe. Like overused exclamation marks or capitalization in writing, the excessive issues Mark encountered soon lost their charm.

I felt like the book ended quite suddenly. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what happened, though. I found that I wanted to know more about what happened beyond the rescue and the readjustment to Earth. I wanted to see Mark hug his parents and get a medal, and even potentially see how his situation changed space travel overall. I wanted him to see potatoes and react humorously.
In short, with a different main character, it’s likely that I may have found this book boring. I did, however, enjoy it in the way it was written, even if it went downhill over the course of the novel. I call this one a READ WITH CAUTION.

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Spoiler-free Snippet

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, is a work of speculative fiction centering around a virulent version of the flu wiping out a large chunk of humanity in a time much like our own. The story moves through time, featuring several different characters and their lives prior to, during, and after the catastrophe. Sometimes this sort of time travel and story weaving can be a bit confusing or boring, but it was done well in this book. The characters were interesting and the story wasn’t completely run of the mill, which was a good sign. One of the weirdest things was that this book followed a similar set of circumstances to a book idea  I’ve been kicking around in my head for a few years. Overall, I would call this a READ, because I enjoyed it and felt like it gave a good picture of the speculative fiction world it sought to portray.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Station Eleven begins with a performance of Shakespeare and an actor dying on stage (not of the flu). That actor’s death and life connect several players in the tale of Station Eleven, as a plague-level flu sweeps across the world and wipes out large chunks of population. You’re given the perspectives of being in a big city during the flu outbreak as well as the experience of twenty years later, as part of a traveling orchestra and acting caravan. The focus of this novel is mostly on the people and how they cope with different situations, rather than an action-based take on the disease spreading.

The whole Kevin Bacon-esque six degrees of separation feel of some books isn’t present in this one. In a way, the book shows how you can touch the lives of others without even meaning to and reminds us that you can have an effect no matter how brief the interaction.

As a fan of Shakespeare and orchestral music, I quite enjoyed the thought of a band of players roaming the country 20 years after the flu epidemic and bringing some of the old world to the new. “Survival is insufficient,” as the caravan’s lead wagon reads. The true mark of modern man is in the will to do more than merely survive.

The novel seems to follow the notion that a complete culture reset might not be a bad thing, as the lives portrayed before the plague are often a bit depressing, with an overall tone of jaded disenchantment. Relationships and lives are mostly ho-hum, with most people feeling as though they’re just going through the motions. The portrayal of life after the plague seems a bit more real, but when you think about it, there are a ton of realities to face that aren’t there in the time before. In short, it’s a bit of a “grass is always greener” situation.

The flu gives a lot of people in the book a chance to change their lives (even if it is forced) and there is a sense of hope there, that even after a disaster the human spirit will go on and survive. This is a bit of a silly, optimistic thought when I write it in this review, but it doesn’t feel nearly that corny when you read the book.
To me, the main point of the book is that art inspires and enriches everything we do, regardless of what our living situation may be and how we interpret art. This resonated with me. From a dismal world and survival comes the chance to show creativity, even a little, and to appreciate the creativity of others. And that, I think, is what makes a society blossom. Even if it’s a simple stone carved into a simple shape, it’s an expression of thought and creativity, and someone else can see and critique and enjoy that thought and creativity. And it lives.

Review: Broken Soul by Faith Hunter

Spoiler-free Snippet

Broken Soul, by Faith Hunter, is the 8th book in the Jane Yellowrock series. The urban fantasy series follows the exploits of a vampire-hunting skinwalker who ends up working for those she normally stakes. Broken Soul was mediocre. I generally enjoy Jane’s character and most of the characters that Hunter writes, but I feel like the last few books have gotten a bit too complicated and convoluted with the myths and legends entwined into the story. The amount of explanation required for certain elements of the story pulled me out of enjoying it too much, though I did like the fact that Jane finally stopped feeling sorry for herself in certain regards. I would call this a READ WITH CAUTION. It wasn’t horrible if you’re a fan of the series, but don’t start with this book, and don’t pay full price, in my opinion.

Here, There Be Spoilers

In this novel, Jane is preparing the Master of New Orleans’ vampire crew for the arrival of a contingent of European vampires. In the midst of this, she uncovers a plot where a team of three evil folks, a vampire and two blood slaves, are looking to kill her and capture a crazy powerful secret hidden in the Master vampire’s lair. Also, she can suddenly stop time. Oh, and there are other magical dimensions and light dragons.

Trying to recap the story was hard to do, because the plot didn’t make a ton of sense. The European vampires are a problem, but then they fall to the wayside when these new vampires come up. Add into that a crazy light dragon that is attacking Jane at random, a living relic of one of the first vampires, and interdimensional magic ley lines, and you get a bit of the confusion that is this book.

It’s a bit like an action movie that decided it didn’t really need a plot so long as there were gratuitous battles and time stopping powers.

I enjoyed the fact that Jane stopped moaning over her ex and let herself get over that. It was also refreshing to see Bruiser’s character in a bit more depth. In spite of this, though, it felt like the book had Jane sort of revisit every character she’d met in order to just have them included.

I was not a fan of the part where Jane kills an over 100-year-old evil blood slave that is known as “the Devil” for her malicious and crazy powerful fighting skills, yet gets all mopey because she “killed a human when she didn’t need to.” I’m fairly sure that someone who has been through what she’s been through and has seen good and evil as much as Jane has would be able to reconcile the fact that a century-old, vampire blood-powered evil warrior woman doesn’t really count as an innocent human any longer. Especially because the “human” in question was actively trying to kill people Jane cared about.
So, there you go. It was just okay. The plot wasn’t thrilling, there was a host of problems with too much description and complexity in the presentation of the supernatural and mythical, and there were somewhat weird and inexplicable time-stopping powers that dealt with interdimensional magic ley lines. The book was a bit of a mess, but if you’re a fan of the series, it might be worth a shot. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. This is a READ WITH CAUTION, because some folks might want to read this, if they’ve read this series.

Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Spoiler-free Snippet

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, follows the tales of a young French girl and a young German boy as time progresses through World War II. Though their lives are quite different, they become intertwined as a result of the war, as many lives undoubtedly did during that time.The book was quite interesting, providing a variety of points of view about the war that I never learned in history class. The characters were meaningful and the story, though we ultimately know the ending, was captivating enough to make you want to read. Overall, I would call this book a READ.

Here, There Be Spoilers

All The Light We Cannot See introduces a blind French girl and her father living in Paris, along with a young, orphaned German boy and his sister living in an orphanage in Germany. Each chapter switches back and forth between points of view, with certain other points of view thrown in occasionally. It’s done in an easy-to-follow, organized manner, and gives the reader a firm expectation of the two intertwining stories.

Following the French girl is quite interesting, because her blindness means she interprets the world in different ways. She loves books, and though she and her father aren’t rich, they still live fairly well. Having recently learned a lot more about the propaganda that Nazi Germany threw at France prior to taking it over, it was interesting to see a sort of first hand tale of the rumors and fear that the French public was subject to during that time.

The German boy’s story arc is also intriguing, as we see the Nazi party gain hold and the fervent patriotism and cautious fear that grips the nation set in. The boy gets the opportunity to save himself from the coal mines and study science at a school, but he quickly learns that the school is training for the army. This is a look at Nazi Germany that I’d never had before, dealing with Hitler Youth and the fate of those growing up in the midst of the conflict.

This book is not one about fighting in the war. It’s mostly about the lives and struggles of the people in the center of the conflict, and how politics ruled the lives of those that were just trying to exist. It explores the concepts of fitting in versus doing what’s right, morality, and the trap of blame.

This is not a book of all happy endings, and shows the lasting impression that a large-scale war can lead. It does show lives being repaired and the world changing, but it also shows how broken things were and stayed long after the war.
If you’re interested at all in this period in history, I think this would be a great book to read. It has a good story with interesting characters, and shows the war from both sides, from a young person’s point of view. The two main characters are kids who aren’t motivated by politics, but rather the will to live in the world in which they find themselves. I would call this book a READ.

Review: The Gemini Effect by Chuck Grossart

Spoiler-free Snippet

The Gemini Effect, by Chuck Grossart, was a pretty mediocre, action-driven work of speculative fiction. I appreciated some of the storytelling methods of the author, but was overall rather hum-ho about the story itself. Most of the characters were likeable and didn’t make the token poor decisions that often plague stories like these, which elevated the novel beyond the simplistic, expected story. Since I got the book for free through the Kindle First program, I didn’t feel cheated. I wouldn’t pay over two dollars for an ebook copy, though. In short, this is a READ WITH CAUTION.

Here, There Be Spoilers

The Gemini Effect follows the path of a DNA-changing biochemical weapon as it is accidentally exposed to a rat and then humanity. The monsters created by the weapon attack everything mercilessly, wiping out cities in mere hours. The time frame of the book spans a few days, where the US goes from somewhat peaceful, near-future nation to crazy storm of chaos.

The novel seemed to escalate from one expected scenario to the next. A bio-engineered disease, thought to be incinerated long ago, rears its ugly head and causes trouble for the US. The disease spreads violently as people try to cope with it. Add some corrupt politicians, a sleeper KGB plot, Soviets stealing technology from Nazi Germany, the Nazi Angel of Death, and a cadre of increasingly improbable scenarios, and you get the gist of this book.

I really enjoyed the beginning of the novel, and how the biochemical weapon is introduced into the story. You follow the story of a car that gets used as an escape by someone infected by the disease, and then accidently left in a junkyard, mistakenly not incinerated. This was a very interesting hook into the story, even if it’s clear early on that it isn’t going to blow you away. I also enjoyed the epilogue, as it was done well and wasn’t easy to immediately figure out, like most of the rest of the book.

The characters in The Gemini Effect were fairly pleasing. The scientists were smart and didn’t get caught in the crazy notion of  “I need to poke this with a stick just once more, because SCIENCE!” that so often perpetuates the plot of stories like this. The military characters were also plausible, and not just transparent meatheads that had no intelligent thoughts or desires. It was refreshing to see characters that weren’t run of the mill.

There was a lot in the book that was downright odd, as the situations escalated into craziness. Special secret chemicals that allow a sleeper KGB agent to control minds, the threat of nuclear warfare, and even mind powers come up before the book ended. In all, it felt a lot like a medium budget action movie that would air on TV on Saturday night after the primetime spot.

There’s not much to say about the book other than that. I read this novel very quickly, partly because it was easy to read and the action was continuous, but partly because I had the time. I doubt I would have purchased this. There were a few odd grammatical choices, but nothing incredibly off-putting. If the writer can bolster his skill to the match his intro and epilogue, the novels he writes will have some promise. If you’re looking for potato chip fiction that is a bit like reading a movie, this would probably interest you. If you’re wanting something deeper, though, I wouldn’t waste the money or time. READ WITH CAUTION.