Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Spoiler-free Snippet

The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi, is the second novel in the Old Man’s War trilogy. Existing in the same basic time period as the first book, we see new and familiar faces. My general feelings of this book can be summed up by a simple statement: it existed to connect the first and last book. While it wasn’t a horrible read, it felt largely superfluous to the overarching story, and I had a hard time caring about the main character. Since it is the middle book of a trilogy, I’ll call this one a READ WITH CAUTION. It wasn’t bad, but I had little patience for a lot of things that took place, and I felt like it was a bit of a deviation from what made the first book, Old Man’s War, interesting.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades follows Jared Dirac, who was created in a manner slightly different than his fellow members of the Ghost Brigades. He is thrust into a world where he must cope with being born an adult and slowly learning that his consciousness is a copy of a traitor to his species, though he isn’t an exact copy in the sense of feelings and emotions. He is eventually key in tracking down and bringing justice to the traitor, along with Jane Sagan from the first book.

We’re introduced to the concept of the Ghost Brigades soldiers in the first book, where the main character ends up directly interacting with them after the intrigue of seeing his dead wife’s body. While the creation, design, and moral implications of the Ghost Brigades are interesting in concept, the focus on them in the book felt largely like a repeat of the training sequences in the first book, but with less interesting characters. The reader is forced to relive the training that occurred in the first book, only in a more rapid manner, and is introduced to an upgraded version of the CDF soldiers.

Jared’s journey to find himself and come to terms with the fact that his consciousness was a copy of a traitor is fairly interesting, though it doesn’t really feel compelling to me in a larger sense. The cast of characters here just isn’t what I had expected, and I felt myself yearning for the charisma that the first book’s protagonist had. I feel like Scalzi wanted to develop Jane’s character a little more before he got to the third book, so he created this story arc in order to add a little more oomph to her character while revealing a bit more of the galaxy’s politics.

I did enjoy learning more about the alien species in the galaxy, as well as the ways the CDF was furthering their research when it comes to human modification and those sorts of things. I feel like this could have been an intriguing standalone novel, but as a follow up to the first, it fell a bit short.
While not an altogether unenjoyable story, I will label this READ WITH CAUTION. Breeze through it in order to get to the next book, in my opinion.

Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I  visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

Spoiler-free Snippet

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, is a sci-fi novel centering around the somewhat near-future expansion of the human race across the galaxy. Elderly people on Earth are recruited by the Colonial Defense Force to become young soldiers with the wisdom of age to fight for Earth, rather than simply fade away and die of old age. With a solid overarching story and likeable characters, it’s fairly easy to enjoy. Though this is a book about people in the military, the fact that the organization tries to be very different from Earth military saved it for me from being some annoying plod through military code words and processes. Nothing against the military, but if you read this blog you probably know I’m not big of realistic military books. In short, I would call this a READ, as it brings up some interesting concepts and is a generally entertaining story.

Here, There be Spoilers

My fiance recommended this book to me ages ago, but my brain kept passing over it. I finally got the chance to read it, and I’m glad I did (you can see his review here, if you’re curious). The basic story follows a recent widower who joins the Colonial Defense Force recruitment program and goes to space to fight in a new and improved younger body, but with the wisdom of age. His exploits lead him to make friendships, find out things about the galaxy that he never knew, and eventually learn some truths about the brave new worlds he is defending that bring forth a font of heroism from deep within.

Scalzi’s writing has a sense of somewhat cynical humor to it, which was showcased well in this book. When the old folks from Earth who joined the CDF got new, young bodies, they immediately had an orgy, just to give an example. But the overarching ideals represented in that humorous cant are also intriguing. We see war for no reason, war for plenty of reasons, and a general breakdown in the way we assume life as we know it should go. Earth is sheltered from most of what goes on in the rest of the galaxy.

There is a brief, well-done look at the truth of what we conceive of as monsters versus what can truly be a monster (hint: anything, even something cute). This book doesn’t try to be an epic satire or commentary, but still has those elements.

There wasn’t too much lingering on scientific principles, but enough to make things interesting. The sheer amount of science and math needed to understand what was going on in the travels through space is a bit overwhelming, but like most of the characters, the reader isn’t required to have a firm grasp on it beyond the basics.

The main character does seem to be unnaturally lucky and good at things. While this works out for him and it’s easy to see that he has a good outlook to handle what he goes through, it does seem a little convenient at times.
Overall, I would definitely call this book a READ. It’s hard to capture the true essence of it in a review, but it was a fun journey through space in a manner that I had never thought of before, without the tedium of most military-based sci-fi.

Review: Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Spoiler-free Snippet

Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, follows the struggles of widowed mouse Mrs. Frisby as she endeavors to save her sick son. This quest soon leads Mrs. Frisby to realizations she never expected about  her late husband’s origins and the actions of the mysterious rats in the rosebush. This is definitely a book geared towards a younger audience, though I think it would be enjoyable for most readers. The characterization is done well, weaving in with the plot to create a rather charming, if somewhat mildly dark, tale. I’ll call this a READ, because it’s a nice break from the somewhat stuffy overcomplexity that so much adult fantasy harbors. Also, nostalgia.

Here, There Be Spoilers

I read this book because I loved the movie (The Secret of NIMH) as a child. I only found out that a book existed a few months ago, so when I was able to procure an ebook copy, I decided to indulge. Overall, the story was fairly simple and straightforward, but dealt in interesting angles of morality and sentience.

The widow Mrs. Frisby only wants to safely  get her family moved out of the field where they spent the winter, but her youngest son comes down with pneumonia and cannot risk going outside in the still-chill air. Calling on her friend Mr. Ages, a wise and fearsome owl, Jeremy the capricious crow, and ultimately the rats living under the rosebush, she finds out that there is a great deal more going on around the farm than she could have imagined. Her husband’s connection to the super-intelligent rats means that her son will be saved, but then the rats need her help — and she’s merely an ordinary mouse.

The characterization in this book, although not too complex, was well done and pleasing. The rats of NIMH are genetically modified to be intelligent, learning the ins and outs of most human technology through observation and trial. Mrs. Frisby is therefore not nearly as smart as they are, but the author never once portrays her as stupid. She struggles to follow certain concepts that the rats discuss, but she’s able to help them where she can, and the rats trust her to do so, in general. This is refreshing, as I feel like most books would have had this relationship be quite different and potentially involve discrimination. This also showcases wisdom versus intelligence, involving the interesting concepts of types of intellect rather than simply assuming one type of intellect being superior.

There are certain somewhat dark themes in the novel that deal with morality and the concept of sentience. The scientists at NIMH are trying to genetically modify rats and mice to be more intelligent, and they manage to do so successfully. As such, the now-self aware rats realize that the basic existence (and hatred) of rats is based on scavenging and stealing from humans. As such, the escaped rats dream of a civilization where they live completely separate and make their own power, food, and no longer steal. This is a rather noble goal, but it also showcases the concept of whether it is moral or satisfying to borrow or live off another population, even for the betterment of yourself and your family. In fact, this is the sort of thing that politics often discusses these days.
Overall, I quite enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH. Admittedly, I may be riding the high of nostalgia, but the book is different from the movie after about 50% of the way in, and it deals much less in the mystical and more in the scientific. The characters and relationships were handled well, allowing the book to be appropriately entertaining and charming. I call this a READ, because I think most people would enjoy it, if nothing else but for the delightful world itself.

Review: The Giver by Lois Lowry

Spoiler-free Snippet

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is one of those books I somehow missed out on reading in school. I recently grabbed it from the library and gave it a read. My overall impression of the book is that it was quite short and quite sad. Definitely written for a young audience, the story nonetheless deals with very real dystopian issues in a society where color and emotion are gone. I wish the book had been longer and that a little more about the society had been explored in juxtaposition to the vague memories the reader is shown. It was a good short story, and I would feel safe calling it a solid introduction to dystopian fiction for young and old — a READ.

Here, There Be Spoilers

The Giver follows a young boy on the cusp of his culture’s rite of passage into adulthood: becoming a twelve and being assigned a profession. In the community where Jonas lives, everything seems as wonderful as a black and white sitcom and works like a well-oiled machine. At the age of 12, children transcend into adulthood by being assigned a job to train for, and Jonas is assigned to the rare Receiver position.

As a Receiver, Jonas is responsible for holding the memories and subsequent emotions of hundreds of years, while the rest of the community operates in blissful ignorance.

Throughout the entire story, I found myself overwhelmingly sad. It was predictable, but not in a negative way. The world was one of overarching melancholy, feeling lonely and hollow.

The concept of the Giver and Receiver (the Giver being what the old Receiver calls himself) is explored in relation to an unfeeling society. At first glance, we see the family units sharing feelings daily, along with rituals of forgiveness, apology, and affection. As Jonas gets more memories — things like riding a sled, a broken bone, or war — he realizes that all the emotions being felt around his community are merely facades of what they could be. Jonas can see color, which has been bled out of his comrades, who ostensibly see only in black and white.

I think the culture presented in The Giver is something that will always be relevant, as humans often seek to escape the truly powerful bad emotions, and often are willing to sacrifice the height of the good to avoid the depths of the bad. For this culture, removing war, poverty, hunger, and a variety of lesser evils from their society was worth losing true joy, love, excitement, and contentment.

Since the community doesn’t really feel, they have no concept of true emotion. It’s hard to understand depth of emotion if your most intense feeling is mild frustration. One interesting facet is the focus on precision of language and how it removed the so-called vague word “love” from their diction. Jonas’ mother calls love “a very generalized word, so meaningless that it has become almost obsolete.” The control of language in this way is similar to Orwell’s 1984.

The ending of the story felt a bit sudden. Jonas flees the community with no preparation and just pedals his bike into the middle of nowhere. Though he and the Giver had planned to have him escape so that the memories he had absorbed would flow back into the community, I almost feel like the Giver knew quite well that Jonas would end up dying (I interpret the ending of the book as a death, though same may not). My feeling is that the Giver knows only by letting those memories leak back in will society begin to feel again, and the more experienced Receiver is the one that must work to heal the panic that will pour through the community. I don’t think this is malicious, but a calculated sacrifice — Jonas becomes the true Giver, in a sense.

For me, the author’s main point is that the essence of humanity comes from a variety of vibrant emotions. Passion, love, and joy will always have the opportunity to be skewed for different circumstances, even if we attempt to create a utopia. Perhaps eliminating these feelings is the only way to prevent the more unfortunate feelings. Are fleeting moments of happiness worth experiencing pain and discomfort?

Though the story has some issues, I do think this is a READ, if not simply for the emotions it evoked for me. I don’t think this would have been as interesting or meaningful had I read it in middle school, though.

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.