Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review: Feed- M.T. Anderson

This is the second young adult fiction book recommended by John Green, excluding his own novels, that I have read, and I have been displeased by both.  In fairness, the video link above led me to expect something different than what the book actually turned out to be.  So, to clarify if you don't watch the above video, some context.  Last summer I made it through my YouTube Watch Later Playlist before I went to my Advanced Placement Summer Institute for Chemistry down in Kentucky where I was away from my wife and family in the middle of nowhere KY for a week.  During the day I was in class and in the evenings I had dinner in a hotel room and watched YouTube videos.  I decided to attempt to watch through the backlog of nearly 800 videos on the blog brothers channel.  It was fun to watch many of the early videos but I only made it through about November of their first year.  At that time, John had written his first two and was working on the draft of the third, so about that same time I listened to them (in fact that week I listened to Looking for Alaska).  In the video above John refers to Hank's desire to have Wikipedia in his brain.  John and several commenters referred to the book here.
So to the book.  Feed is basically about having the Internet, and especially the advertising and mindless entertainment portions of, it wired into our brains.  The technology to do this is called the feed.  Most people have it and enjoy it because of its convenience, but there are some who hold out due to skepticism.  Although the skeptical mindset turns out to be correct, it is those who were skeptical who suffer in the end.  The novel is set in the future and is a science fiction dystopian novel.  I know I swore off of dystopian novels after reading Hunger Games and Brave New World, but I had forgotten that this was not just sci-fi, but also dystopian.  
Without spoilers, the main female character, Violet meets the narrator Titus at a party on Earth's Moon.  While at the party someone disrupts theirs, and others', feeds with something akin to disconnection via a software virus.  Through this attack, as well as Violet having received her feed implant later in life and a cheaper model she has trouble recovering from the feed.  Furthermore, the medical costs are too high for her widowed, eccentric father.  Of course, already in our real-world digital age we are seeing the start of a filter bubble and customized advertising, but this book took it one step further.  In her attempts to mess with and confuse the feed she shops for all sorts of eccentric things, but buys very little.  When it comes time to pay her medical bills an option outside of insurance and self-paying is to get a corporate sponsor.  But she burned her bridges with them by maintaining no brand loyalty.  The story unfolds predictably from there with a little bit of teenage angst thrown into the mix.  The end morality is to be distrusting of corporations and governments, but mostly it is a warning against consumerism.
One minor complaint too is that to show the dumbing down of society a lot of odd slang and cussing is used, at times it is distracting because it is so inane, but I do understand the point of it.  I was reminded of this while looking for the book image above, which links to an excerpt from early in the book.
Being dystopian, the novel has a distasteful end, but I think my main complaint is something that I already stated.  The feed causes problems, but in the end those with the feed only have minor problem and those without the feed, or who were reluctant to adopt it because they were skeptical, end up suffering the most when all is said and done.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: The Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light- Robert Jordan

First off there will be no spoilers.  Secondly, I've talked to many people about the series, but I feel obligated to start there, and this will probably not go quickly.  If you'd like to jump to the review of the final book, scroll down to the next image.
In high school I read a lot of sci-fi (mostly Star Wars novels though to be completely honest).  Anyway, I had read bits of fantasy as a child and felt that I would like to read more, but didn't know what to read.  Obviously, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were at the top of my list, but after that I didn't know where to go.  Everyone I talked to recommended Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  Unfortunately, I didn't have any local bookstores, never received them as Christmas gifts, and my library didn't have them in print or on audio.  Jump forward to college and I remember Crossroads of Twilight coming out and decided that I should again try to find the series.  However, by that point I was pretty addicted to audiobooks and read books very rarely, due to school work.  A year later, and about the time college was finishing up and the prequel, A New Spring, came out.  I started to read it while working security, but lost that job and then got married, so I put the book aside for a couple of months.  Then, I found it on audio at a new library.  I quickly listened to it and enjoyed it and decided to continue the series.  However, to anyone out there who hasn't read the series: DO NOT START WITH THE PREQUEL.  It ruins some of the novels and sets up several characters as a main characters even though their parts in the actual series start out small and build up on purpose.  Anyway, I managed to find books 1-5 on CD and listen to them all over the next year.  I didn't know it at the time, but book 9 was the first to have an audiobook released on CD, the others had been all cassette.  TOR and Macmillian Audio were slowly working on re-releasing books 1-8 on CD.  So I had to listen to 6 on cassette while moving and commuting to work in a car that had no cassette player.  I literally had a cassette boombox running on batteries for my 45 minute commute.  Anyway, once I started teaching in 2005, I had trouble finishing the book before it was due at the library and no longer lived near that library.  Also, around this time book 11 was released.
Jump forward a few years and I found myself searching the library catalog again to see if they were available and if 12 had come out.  It hadn't so I found myself searching the internet for an upload when I stumbled across Brandon Sanderson's eulogy for Robert Jordan.  I was heartbroken, but at the same time releved to learn that he was going to be finishing the series.  Unlike many dedicated fans, I did not have to go through the panic of wondering if the series would come to a close because I was almost 6 months late hearing about the news.  At that point I set out to finish the series, by restarting it.  I listened to the Prequel through Book 11 just inf time for Book 12 to come out.  I was also listening to it on MP3 by this point, and lost my first MP3 player while going to be a groomsman in my best friend's wedding somewhere just in the new stuff in Book 6 that I hadn't got to.  I quickly replaced my MP3 player to hear the end of Book 6, Lord of Chaos, which is still one of my favorite books and probably my favorite ending.  About a year and a half later I stayed a weekend with my best friend, his wife, and their infant son and saw the books on the shelf in the bedroom I would be staying in.  I held my thoughts for about an hour before I asked them which of them was into the series, and she said that she was and was trying to get him to read it.  We then had a very enjoyable conversation about it, and for the first time I was able to ask the question I had always had, which I will get to in a little bit.  My family also came up to join me that weekend and we had a great time together, but after that my wife picked out a lot of books that she wanted to read from our friend's collection, amongst them was The Wheel of Time.  She also was instantly hooked on the series and read it in less than 6 months.  While my best friend's wife and him ended up reading the series together.  I also remember waiting in agony for book 13 because it was the first time since my book 6-7 audiobook difficulties that I actually had to wait for one to come out.  Then I went through the same process as book 14, A Memory of Light was delayed at least twice.  Now I've finally read it and been able to finish the series, my wife is currently in the process of reading it, and our friends are in book 11 or 12 together after about 2 years.   Lastly, before moving on to the review, I managed to convince a student to read the series this year (and let him borrow my copies of what I had) because of some of what I'll say in my review below.  Prior to that I had found one student as an 8th grader who was reading book 4 and had made it through book 5 by the end of his sophomore year.  The student I convinced to read the series, is a whole-hearted convert and read books 1-12 from Thanksgiving to Memorial day and convinced at least two other students to pick up the series.
A Memory of Light cover.jpg
For those of you that jumped ahead, welcome back, though I'm not going to jump into an immediate review of the book before I say that I like about the series as a whole, scroll down one more paragraph is you are not interested.  The series has been amazing, right from the prologue of the first book The Eye of the World. All of the books start out the same:
"The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the third age by some, an Age yet to come, an age long pass, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning."
And the cycle hooks you in.  Jordan is long winded, but he describes a fantastical world that is very easy to get immersed in.  Furthermore, and without giving anything away let it suffice that it is important, he is able to write about the way people think and the weird way dreams work in a seamless way.  Dreams are random and chaotic, and yet they all make sense in their randomness.  The question I asked my best friend's wife, the first time I was able to ask a female about the series was, "I've always been amazed at the way he writes about the randomness and chaos of dreams and also how people think.  Not only the way that people think, but also the way different people think differently.  He even writes the way women think differently than the way men think, and I think it is how they think," and then I turned to her and ask, "Is it?  Do women really think differently and in the way he describes it?"  And she confirmed yes and that she had noticed that as well and wondered the same about men, although she had discussed the books with several other male and female friends who had read the books.  Lastly, in general review of the series, I have listened to all of them and only read a few chapters of the prequel on my own.  I don't think listening to a book takes away from it, and with good readers it often adds to it.  Kate Reading and Michael Kramer are the Wheel of Time to me, in the same way that Jim Dale is the world of Harry Potter to me- NOT the movies [Dobby still sounds wrong to me] [[A quick side rant about Jim Dale, he won two Grammys for his voice work in Harry Potter, as well as many other audiobook only awards]].  Kate is one of the few female readers that I have loved and Michael is very good as well.  And although it was probably oversight, it added to the world that not only different people had complete cultures and dialects, but the readers pronounced a few names and places differently enough that it seemed to add to the richness of the language.
And now, for A Memory of Light.  This book was bound to be epic and the be nothing but the Last Battle at Tarmon Gai'don.  Rand battles Shai'tan himself finally.  The book was slow and action-packed at the same time.  There were still new characters introduced.  In the way of his writing, mostly 3rd person limited, some mysteries were explained, but not outright.  There are still some complexities of the world that are not neatly wrapped up.  However, the book left me wanting nothing, except for (like Harry Potter, although more-so) a longer epilogue to explain some more things.  The series wrapped up nicely and the book was worth the wait, but it is not my favorite- that is a close race between 11-13 and 6.  To anyone looking to read good fantasy this series will suck you in and will be worth it.  Books 7-10 can move slow at times, and there are dry spells in the series, but the end is always explosive, and the final book does the same for the series.  After reading it 1.5 times it will be a long time before I read it again, but I hope to pick it up and take the journey once again with my friends because there are neither beginning or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.
As a final note, the next epic fantasy series that I plan on tackling is A Song of Fire and Ice, but a decision that I came to while longing for the Harry Potter and Wheel of Time series to finish is that I'll wait until a release date for the actual final book is decided and then I'll start book 1.  It may take a decade or two more, but at least I won't have to wait impatiently like the dedicated fans.  Also, I do not intend to watch the HBO series until I read the book, so no spoilers from either!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review: Brave New World

First edition cover
So it has been forever since I've written anything in the blog and it has been just about as long since I have finished this book.  I listened to it back in October and it was really good.  The science was certainly limited and dated, but still it made for good science fiction reading.  It is one of those classics you are supposed to read, but I never had.  After H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley is one of the founders of the English dystopian novel genera.  In general, I am pretty fed up with the dystopian novel, so few offer anything new to the scene and there are only two possible resolutions- everyone breaks free or everyone accepts their dreary fate.  Maybe I'm simplifying it too much or maybe I'm just cynical, but I think dystopian has been overdone.  And I might as well get it off my chest, I read the Hunger Games Trilogy last summer and did not like it, furthermore, I did not think that the movie added anything to the book and I was disappointed at the wardrobe of Katniss Everdeen.  Anyway, I digress.  Despite having lost patience with dystopian novels this one was different.  Partly because it was so foundational in the genera that it didn't have to outdo the others in how wretched society had become or what form that depravity took.  Like many dystopian societies this one was perfect by design, but imperfect in reality.  The main character, Bernard is a psychologist who teaches people in the society through sleep-teaching, and has become discontent with life because he is slightly different from others in his caste and he recognizes how life is essentially pre-programmed.  Without spoiling the plot he learns that some people, Native Americans (called savages in the book), have existed outside of their society successfully, and this causes him to withdrawal.  And the end was truly shocking in a way that I have only been shocked once before as far as I can recall- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I'll have to talk about that book another time, but the only thing I will say right now is that if you are only familiar with it through pop culture references, especially cartoon references, then unfortunately some of the book has been ruined for you, but the main twist in the novel is still waiting for you to pick it up and read it.  Anyway, I've been all over the place in this review, but I'll leave you with this- read the classics, they at not all great, but there are great ones out there and they are classics for a reason.