The Top Six of 2013 vol. 1: “Wrapped Up In Books”

According to my goodreads.com profile, here are some interesting facts about me as a reader:

  • I’ve listed as many books as I can remember reading, and my grand total is 286.
  • I currently have 150 titles on my “to-read” list.
  • Thus far, I have read 51 books in 2013, even though my original goal was 50.  Here’s to crushing it.
  • From a perspective that is slightly more impressive—or tragically sad, depending on how one decides to look at it—I’ve read 15,018 pages of words this year.
  • I read three biographies/memoirs this year.  They were about Tina Fey, Simon Pegg, and Vladimir Putin.  I’m sure there is a connection here, though I have yet to discover it.

As I’m rather proud of myself for reading 51 books (15,018 pages), here is my top six booklist for 2013.

DISCLAIMER: Three of the books on this list were not published in 2013, but I happened to read and enjoy them in 2013 which means they may as well have been published this year.  Plus, it’s my list, so I can do what I want.  Bitches.

the troop1. The Troop by Nick Cutter (2014): In addition to being one of the most grisly, shocking, and emotionally wracking books that I have ever read, I acquired and read an advanced copy of this book at the San Diego Comic-Con this year—which is pretty badass because it’s not slated for release until February of 2014.  I read the entire book in installments while waiting in various lines for various panels, and I think I finished it right before we went in to see a Neil Gaiman discuss his charming British books with his charming British accent.  Subsequently, I’d like to apologize to those people in my vicinity who had to endure the noises of shock and revulsion that I was prone to making during this time.

 Succinctly, The Troop can be summed up as a modern retelling of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies by way of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.  It recounts the details of the worst scouting trip ever as five fourteen-year old boys are stranded on an island off the coast of Newfoundland with a parasitic worm that may or may not have already infected them.  As the book unfolds and the boys’ wills are pitted against the elements and each other, their true characters come dangerously close to the surface.

Cutter’s ability to force the reader into some truly terrifying and gruesome moments is what I both love and kinda hate about this book.  There were moments when I had to stop reading because the words on the page were succeeding in making me nauseous.  I’m not a lightweight, either.  I grew up on a steady diet of 80’s splatter flicks, and The Troop still managed to get under my skin—gross pun intended.  Any author that can manipulate language so accurately that it actually makes me queasy is worthy of my respect.

shock value2. Shock Value by Jason Zinoman (2012): Speaking of 80’s splatter flicks, Shock Value chronicles the golden age of horror movies in glorious and well-documented detail.  Throughout the pages of Shock Value, Zinoman takes a closer look at how directors like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and George Romero took a previously impotent and stale genre like horror and used it as a medium to channel America’s dark and dirty subconscious circa 1970.

Horror films have always been a big part of my life—despite the fact that I would often be on the verge of tears if I ever wandered into the horror section of my local video store as a young lad—so getting a behind-the-scenes look at the people and stories behind films like The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, along with their cultural significance, was nerdy good fun.

Shock Value shows that though these films are violent and unsettling, they were actually great avenues for progressive thinking.  Duane Jones, the protagonist in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, set a new precedent for African Americans in film, and movies such as Alien, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street obliterated many of the stereotypes that were assigned to women in horror and sci-fi.

Though it’s getting harder to assign any cultural value to today’s horror films, anyone who says that the horror genre is one dimensional needs to only read this book.

locke and key3. Locke & Key vol 5: Clockworks by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (2013): My enthusiasm for comic books and graphic novels has waned in my old age, but Locke & Key is one of those titles that makes me remember how powerful comic books can be.  I started reading this series back in August of this year, and I’ve steadily consumed all of them—most recently obtaining an advance copy of volume six which isn’t due out until next year.

Volume five happened to be my favorite installment, but the whole series is amazing.  Without giving too much away, Locke & Key is about the Locke family and their ancestral home on the fictional island of Lovecraft, Massachusetts.  After the Locke patriarch is done in by a deranged high school student, and the family relocates to Lovecraft, the three Locke children start discovering a series of keys that offer abilities such as opening a person’s head and fiddling with their thoughts or leaving one’s body behind to traverse the world as a ghost.

Hill and Rodriguez are a great team, and the story often feels brutally real despite its more fantastical elements.  The story spans several hundred years, and it touts one of the best lists of supporting characters ever.  A finely crafted story that has been illustrated by a gifted artist is what makes comic books cool, and Locke & Key excels on every level.

Imagine4. Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (2012): I don’t read much nonfiction, but every so often, when I force myself to read a book that doesn’t involve monsters or space battles, I find that my mind has been sufficiently blown.  Reading Jonah Lehrer’s work about the processes and practices that enhance a person’s creativity was one of those milestones at which I can say, “There was my life before reading this book and my life after reading this book.”

I liked how Imagine didn’t claim ownership to the secret of creativity, but rather explored various companies and organizations that maximize the creativity of their members (think Google, Pixar, and the pub outside of Oxford where Tolkien and Lewis founded the Inklings) in an attempt to figure out the best environment for a creative mind.

This was especially interesting to me as an English teacher, because encouraging students to be creative is a big part of what I hope to accomplish every day.  You’d think it would be easy to tell a student, “Here is pen and paper.  Make something happen,” but it’s not.  This book helped me make the process of teaching creativity a lot easier.

It’s a great source of information for anyone who seeks to cultivate creativity in any shape.  For example, David Byrne from The Talking Heads finds that riding his bike through unfamiliar parts of New York City is a great way to get his creative juices flowing.  The mere mental picture is enough to inspire creativity.

eleanor and park5. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013): The real tragedy about this book is that so many high school libraries refuse to carry it because of its content.  Not only is this insane to me—it’s no more shocking than the misadventures of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter—but I strongly believe that every teenager in America needs to read this book right at this very moment.

Not only is this a perfect love story for anyone who considers themselves a geek—there’s a superb moment in which Park makes a Boba Fett reference come across as heart-swellingly romantic—but the titular characters feel like actual high school students.

Rowell’s characterization of high schoolers differs from the likes of say, John Green, but in the right way.  The characters in a John Green novel fire volleys of witty repartee back and forth with the grace and precision of a Quentin Tarantino film.  Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does tend to make his characters seem more contrived.  Rainbow Rowell, on the other hand, makes more use of what the characters don’t say—which is a much more realistic vision of high school romance.  Because, let’s face it, when teenagers are in love, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Alif the Unseen6. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2013): One of the reasons that I like to read books is because occasionally, I stumble across something that shows me something new about the world—something that has always been there, but it’s just taken me awhile to notice.  Alif the Unseen tells the story of a teenage hacker in a militaristic Middle Eastern country who finds himself caught up in a mind-bending adventure that blends old-school magic with new-school tech savvy.  I know very little about life in the Middle East, but G. Willow Wilson’s novel provided a window into that culture by way of fantasy and mythology—which made the unfamiliar environment instantly accessible.

I enjoyed this book so much because it showed me that people in different parts of the world often have the same problems, doubts, and questions about love and authority that I do.  Alif the Unseen gets bonus points for creating that cultural bridge and introducing me to the morally ambiguous creature known as Vikram the Vampire at the same time.

Stay tuned for volume 2 of this epic list of lists.  HINT: it will be about video games.

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Comic-Con 2013

There are a lot of places where you can read about the extremely cool reveals and sneak peeks about the coming year in pop culture and general nerdery that is the San Diego Comic Con.  But chances are you’re seeing the Con through the eyes of someone with an all-access media pass or perhaps someone who enjoys some kind of celebrity status because of their cultural musings.  But, if you want to see the Con through the eyes of a regular, every day kind of geek (like myself), now is the time.

Having greased the applicable wheels, Sheree and I got a four day pass including preview night.  Typically, preview night is a chance to hit the exhibition hall with the intimate crowd of around 100,000 rather than 120,000 people.  This is the time for hardcore ebay merchants to secure all the Comic Con exclusives so they can hawk them at about 200% of their original value.  It’s a tactic we’ve tried before, but I think you need to have the predatory stock market mentality to make this work.  Like, you’ve got to be okay with stomping a sixty-year-old woman in the neck in order to make this lucrative.  They were also screening some new shows that will be out this fall, but I personally like to use preview night to get a feel for how that particular year is going to go.  Will there be a face-stabbing? Will the line gods be merciful? These are the important questions to contemplate on preview night.

Thursday was actually a pretty good day.  We started the day with a panel made up of film composers who have worked on superhero films.  This panel was cool for a few different reasons.  First, we got to see some footage from upcoming films.  For example, we saw a pretty decent clip from The Wolverine and one from the upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.  Second, it was kind of funny to see these guys address the fact that making music for a superhero movie often leads to their work and the work of an entire orchestra get drowned out by the audio assault of sound effects that are also a superhero staple.  John Debney, who did the score for Iron Man 2 was particularly eloquent about this dynamic.

After that, we hopped in line for Hall H.  Ah, Hall H.  There are two large venues at the Con–Ballroom 20 and Hall H.  These lines are governed by fickle deities who share a twisted sense of humor.  We’ve never had a positive Ballroom 20 line experience, but Hall H has its ups and downs.  On Thursday, the gods were sleepy and unfocused on tormenting lesser beings.  We were able to get in and see some footage from Ender’s Game and Divergent which was pretty cool.  The crowd freaks out about Harrison Ford, but you can’t really blame them.  Characters that he’s played make up a pretty huge chunk of the geek universe–Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Rick Deckard and let’s not forget that crotchety news anchor from Morning Glory.  He always seems to be slightly pissed off to have to come to Comic Con, and I’m not sure if it’s hilarious or off-putting.  I did like his response to a fanboy who asked him what would happen if Indiana Jones and Han Solo met eachother: “I imagine they’d say something like, ‘Hi.  How are you?'”

Immediately following this panel was one of Entertainment Weekly‘s Visionary panels, where they get a few random actors/directors to sit and chat about life in the creative arts.  I actually really like these panels–we’ve seen James Cameron and Peter Jackson discuss the future of motion capture and J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon discuss stage magic and films from the 1980’s.  This year, the lineup included Alfonso Cuaron, Edgar Wright and Marc Webb.  Occasionally these panels have an odd man out–someone who might not be on the same page as the other panelists, and this year I felt that Marc Webb was an odd choice.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s a totally cool dude and I love (500) Days of Summer, but Alfonso Cuaron and Edgar Wright have these passion projects coming down the pipe, and he’s working on The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  All the same, it’s fun for a fan of movies and filmmakers to see these three guys chat about life in their world.  They always have a positive message about creativity and success to share, and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Then Friday happened, and it nearly ruined everything.  In line at a quarter to seven, didn’t get into Hall H until around five.  Missed the Veronica Mars movie panel, and The Walking Dead season four panel.  Got in to see footage from the new Spider-Man, but that wasn’t worth the ten-hour wait.  Also, there was no way Hall H was filled to capacity.  We later heard through the grapevine that they were late letting people in, so way to screw up, Comic Con.  Dejected and sad, we went back to our hotel where we learned that there was no Santa Claus and that it was our parents that were leaving us money for our lost teeth.

We resolved to get started even earlier on Saturday–hit the Hall H line around five in the AM.  This time around, the line staff had learned from their mistakes and got a pretty early start.  We started off down by the bay, but as we slowly inched forth, it looked like the line gods were smiling upon us.  We managed to see all of the Hall H programming, and here’s the short list:

Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuaron: Gravity–movie looks awesome, Alfonso Cuaron is extremely polite and self-deprecating, and I thought Sandra Bullock was genuinely cool.

Godzilla, 300 2: 600, The Lego Movie: Meh.  Also, that’s not the real title for the new 300 movie.

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt: Edge of Tomorrow–Tom Cruise and Chris Hardwick (the moderator and one of my personal idols) sang some Foreigner together–apparently Chris Hardwick played Stacee Jaxx in a lesser known production of Rock of Ages .  Not sure about Edge of Tomorrow, though.  I think they should have kept the title of the graphic novel from which it was adapted–All You Need is Kill.  The way the actors described it made it sound decent, but the trailer made it look like just  another sci-fi whatever-the-hell movie.

Then Zack Snyder popped out and was all, “Hey guys, here’s a thing with a guy!” which was followed up with a brief teaser image for an upcoming Batman/Superman movie.  It made me a bit tingly.

Catching Fire and I, Frankenstein: Lots of folks on hand for Catching Fire, though it was hard to keep track of all of them with Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson being so damn entertaining and attractive.  I liked The Hunger Games and am looking forward to the sequel.  Boy, but I, Frankenstein looks like a steaming heap.  Aaron Eckhart was there, but I kinda felt bad that it was for this movie.

I’m sure there was some other stuff, but let’s talk about the moments that reignited the Comic Con magic that Friday had tried really hard to snuff out.  X-Men: Days of Future Past had all kinds of awesomeness happening.  Bryan Singer is directing, and it’s going to team the original cast of the X-Men films (minus Cyclops and Jean Grey.  Thanks Brett Ratner, you tool) with the cast of X-Men: First Class.  You know what that means? They were all there! Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy sitting next to Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart.  Badass.

At this point, I officially felt that particular type of Comic Con magic coursing through Hall H.  Regardless of how long I waited in line or how many people have gotten their sweat on me, seeing all of these amazing actors lend their talents to characters that have been like close friends throughout my childhood hanging out on one stage is pretty damn joyous.

And that was just the preshow.

The Marvel panel has traditionally been known to crank it up to eleven.  After all, we saw the Avengers assemble for the first time on that stage.

So.  Thor 2.  The panel starts off innocently enough.  Chris Hardwick brings out Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios and they chit chat a bit about their upcoming movies.  Then the lights go out.  No big deal, though.  They’re probably just showing the footage early because they’re behind schedule.  Whatevs.  Loki’s voice booms, “Humans.  Humans gathered in this pitiful kingdom of Midgard,” Right on.  Loki’s gonna be in this movie, so it makes sense that he’s the first voice you hear on the footage, “Known as…Hall H.” What? What? Whaaaaat? Boom! Tom Hiddleston in full Loki garb takes the stage and mocks us for our weakness.  Calls Chris Hardwick a “mewling quim.” Great stuff.  It looks like Thor 2 is going to involve lots of Dark Elf bashing.  Plus a possible love triangle among Lady Sif, Natalie Portman and Thor.  I’ll totally go see it.

Captain America 2: The whole cast was there–Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson.  My favorite part of the footage: Cap finds himself in an elevator at what I assume to be S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.  Small groups of dudes get in on each floor, but Cap notices some strangeness–one dude is sweating profusely, another shifts his weight like he’s packing heat.  When the elevator stops, Cap’s all, “I just have one thing to say: Any of you want to get out?” Cap proceeds to take these chumps down in a wicked close-proximity melee.  Very cool scene to open with.

Guardians of the Galaxy: I admit, when Marvel announced the movie adaptation of this comic, I thought to myself, “Wait.  The one with the space raccoon? Really?” But since following some buzz–James Gunn signing on to direct and Chris Pratt as Starlord–my interest was piqued.  And then, they showed the damn trailer and it’s now become a bit of an obsession.  John C. Reilly as a Kree detention officer going over the dossiers of each of the Guardians, and Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser claiming, “They sound like a bunch of a-holes.” was enough to make me giggle like an idiot.

Oh, and they wrapped with Joss Whedon popping out to announce the title of the new Avengers movie which will be…The Rise of Ullllltrooooon!!!! Well done, Marvel.

Sunday found us visiting panels chock full of authors, which is always a good way to spend the last day of the Con.  I really enjoyed the spotlight on Neil Gaiman, as he has a wonderfully soothing voice and when someone with a wonderfully soothing voice talks about books, writing and literature in general, I’m usually quite satisfied.

And that’s Comic Con year six, folks.  Though this is a pretty long post, and I feel like I’ve masterfully encapsulated our experience, it’s no match for attending and seeing it all for yourself.  It’s a bitch to get tickets, but my friends, it’s something that you must do at least once before someone kills you.

2013: My Favorite Books So Far

It’s true; I’ll admit to it readily.

I’m kind of a book nerd.

I’ve been on a big reading binge for the last year or so, and I’ve been loving it.  I just hit 50 books read so far this year–you can see them all here, if you’re curious–#50 was The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.

So in honor of my nerdy milestone, here are some of my favorite books I’ve read this year.  And no, not all of these came out this year; these are just my favorites I’ve read so far.

My favorite novel so far:  After Dark by Haruki Murakami

(Runners up:  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

I’ve never read Murakami before, but I after this, I’ll seek out more of his books.  It’s lovely, completely odd, and totally unforgettable and fascinating.  This book is set during one night in Tokyo–from midnight until dawn.  The book is grounded by the main characters Mari and Takashi, who meet at a 24-hour Denny’s that night.   The surreal elements sprinkled throughout the book might not be for everyone, but I loved the small, lovely moments Murakami creates, regardless of the weirdness–the conversation Mari and Takashi have when they first meet was captivating.  Short, sweet, and phenomenal.

My favorite YA book so far:  Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

(Runner up:  Code Name Verity, The Raven Boys)

This book caught me off guard with its awesomeness. It’s a simple story–misfits Eleanor and Park meet and fall in love… which kind of sounds horrible when I think about it.  Plus, it switches point of view between the two main characters, which is one of my book pet peeves.  But in spite of all that, somehow, it all works.  It’s really great little love story without the cutesy ridiculousness that bothers me about a lot of YA romance.  This quality of this book blew me away; I loved every bit of it.  I’ve already requested Rainbow Rowell’s next book, Fangirl, at the library.

My children’s lit. pick:  When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

(Runner up:  The One and Only Ivan)

I’m a little late jumping on the bandwagon for this book (since it won the Newbery three years ago), but I’m pretty glad I did. This is a phenomenal little story–for anyone, not just for kids.  Miranda, the main character, is a normal 6th grader in NYC, until she begins to receive mysterious notes from someone who appears to know her future–kind of an ambitious premise for a children’s book.  The references to A Wrinkle in Time were fun, but the characterization and setting actually reminded me more of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–definitely a good thing, since that’s one of my all-time favorites.   Smart and charming and clever and likable.  Check it out if you haven’t yet.

My favorite nonfiction:  The Glass Castle

(Runners up:  Relish:  My Life in the Kitchen, Book Love)

It’s hard to believe that this is a true story, and it’s even harder to believe that someone could have that kind of a crazy childhood, become successful, and then be secure enough to write about it.   I recently read an interview with Jeannette Walls and her mother, who is now living in a cottage on her daughter’s property.  Really interesting, considering how horrifyingly irresponsible her parents came across in this book.  I had a bunch of students recommend this book to me, and I’m glad they did. I really liked it. It was very readable; it had great pacing and flow, which I think is sometimes lacking in nonfiction.

Lots and lots of good books–some disappointments, too (I’m looking at you, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, The Book of Lost Things, and Blood, Bones and Butter).  If anyone has recommendations for my next 50 this year, let me know!

Aficion

Found on the Lego wall at Comic Con

Years ago, during one of my first semesters in college, I read the classic Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises.  For those who haven’t read it, the book focuses on Jake, a WWI veteran and expat living in Paris,  who decides to travel with a group of his friends to Spain to see the running of the bulls.  When Jake is there, he meets a guy named Montoya and the two bond over their shared aficion–both men are passionate about bullfighting.  For these aficionados, there is a respect for the sport that goes beyond mere fandom, almost becoming a reverence aimed at something they both admire deeply.

In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the main character loves a book called An Imperial Affliction, and she expresses what it’s like to be an aficionado:  “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like betrayal.”

If you’re like me, you’ve experienced the same thing:  someone starts talking about a book, a TV show, a movie that you truly love and instead of enthusiastically joining in the conversation, you pause, trying to keep the skeptical look off of your face.  You get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.  These people, you realize, have no idea the awesomeness of the thing they’re talking about.  They lack aficion, you think, while simultaneously feeling slightly embarrassed at your own snobbery.  You smile at the offending parties, perhaps you nod as they talk about their favorite parts.  But inside, you know that these people aren’t aficionados and never will be.  They don’t understand or appreciate that album/book/song/movie the way you do.  So you politely change the subject and breathe a sigh of relief when the topic changes to something you don’t really care about, like boating trips or Game of Thrones.

Lines at Comic-Con are an interesting place to experience this very phenomenon.  Most people waiting are hard core–they know their fandoms and they take their love of pop culture seriously.  Last year, I had the most interesting conversation with two Canadian guys about whether The Big Bang Theory accurately portrayed nerd culture or, as they theorized, it was a form of “nerdface.”  Two years ago Alex and I met two actors in line for Hall H who just wanted to shoot the breeze about the movie industry.  They were casual and down to earth about their various stints in acting and screenwriting and fandom, completely lacking the pretention you might expect from that kind of conversation.

Not all fans at the Con have aficion, however.  We once encountered a Han Solo cosplayer who was loudly talking about Star Wars and Firefly without any level of true aficion, as if he were showing off for the rest of us in line.  I also found his distaste for Twilight fans to be a bit ironic–if you’re obsessed enough to dress in a Han Solo costume, you don’t get to pass judgment on other people’s fandom.  Considering how far back we were and how unlikely it was that we were getting in to see the panel we were waiting for, it was particularly frustrating.

So, where does your aficion lie?  What fandoms transcend mere interest and become a passion for you?

Books about Clones: A Double Feature

Quick note:  I recently read these two books back-to-back.  I had no idea they were both about clones; I just knew that both had gotten good reviews, so I checked them out.  It just so happened they were both about an obscure science fiction topic.  Go figure.

Never Let Me Go

Summary from Goodreads:  As a child, Kathy – now thirty-one years old – lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.

And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed – even comforted – by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood–and about their lives now.

My review:  Really great idea here–I love the fact that this is essentially sci-fi without any of the typical tropes and conventions of the genre–no flying cars or lasers here.  A book about kids who are raised for the sole purpose to be organ donors?  Very interesting idea.  It could have been really heavy-handed with the message, too, but Ishiguro never lays it on too thick.  However… I just didn’t love it. I appreciated it, but it didn’t grab me and slap me in the face.  I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and Kath’s narration, while I understand the point of it, just never clicked with me. She’s a very detached narrator, simply impartially telling the story while letting readers interpret all emotion from their side.  Interesting, but the impassivity made the book not as gripping as it could have been if told otherwise.

The House of the Scorpion

Summary from Goodreads:  Matteo Alacran was not born; he was harvested with the DNA from El Patron, lord of a country called Opium. Can a boy who was bred to guarantee another’s survival find his own purpose in life? And can he ever be free?

My review:  This book has a great premise–it tells the story of a young boy who is the clone of a powerful drug lord. This is futuristic dystopia, but done in a really unique way. I really liked the setting and the plot setup–creating a drug country between the US and Mexico called Opium is a bold move in a young adult novel; however, I didn’t love the writing style. It felt a little too children’s lit for me, especially considering the intense subject matter.  And I wasn’t the only one confused by where this book fits:  it got a Newberry Honor (one of the top children’s book prizes), a Printz Honor (one of the top YA awards) and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  Granted, that also means that it was a pretty good book; I just wish it would have come down more on the side of YA, and perhaps cut scenes from Matteo’s childhood.  The characterization in this book is definitely a positive point.  Matteo’s conflicted relationship with the 150-year old El Patron is complex and fascinating.  El Patron is a supremely evil dude, but he treats Matteo well in a world that devalues the lives of clones.  It’s also interesting how Matteo exhibits some of El Patron’s personality traits–is Matteo destined to become like the villainous El Patron?  The ending of this book felt a bit rushed, but apparently Nancy Farmer’s working on a sequel.  It’ll be interesting to see where she takes Matteo Alacran next.

Three Books That Tech Nerds Will <3

1.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

 Alex’s review: 

I first heard about this book in an issue of Entertainment Weekly that I read a few years ago. It then serendipitously resurfaced on the 2012 YALSA Best of the Best list, which is the basis of a reading challenge that Sheree and I were tackling.  Spurred forth by equal parts fate, curiosity, and competitive spirit, I checked a copy out on le Kindle. And then I read it. This is what happened.

THE PLOT
A MMORPG called OASIS has evolved into a fully interactive virtual universe. People work, play, socialize, and attend school within the confines of this online program. As a result, the real world has turned to crap. Nobody leaves their homes, and I imagine the smell that permeates Hastur’s Games and Hobbies is pretty much everywhere. Upon the death of James Halliday, the CEO of the OASIS company, a mysterious competition presents itself to all users. If a user is able to find three keys that have been scattered throughout the vast online expanse of OASIS–and complete their subsequent challenges–they inherit Halliday’s company along with his billions of dollars. The only clue is a document called Anorak’s Almanac which contains all of Halliday’s thoughts and ruminations on the popular culture of the 1980’s. As such, films such as Real Genius and War Games become scripture, and games for the Atari 2600 become legend. Teenager and ’80’s wunderkind Wade Watts believes he has what it takes to solve this challenge. Along the way, he encounters other agoraphobes who are also hunting for this Easter egg to end all Easter eggs.

THE GOOD
Originality is what makes this book readable. The idea of a virtual world where I could visit an entire planet dedicated to Full House and plug Danny Tanner in the head with a plasma rifle is immensely appealing. Cline’s manic, ADD soaked world is definitely a place worth wasting one’s entire life. The nostalgia of the 1980’s is everywhere in the novel, and it made me miss the days of the original NES and good horror movies.

THE BAD
I believe that sometimes, a writer has an idea that surpasses his/her ability to write. This book is a good example of that phenomenon. Full props to Mr. Cline for going for it, but there were several moments when I felt like I was reading a rough draft rather than a complete book.

OVERALL
If you consider yourself a geek and you have a fondness for ’80’s pop culture, you’ll enjoy reading this book. Just don’t get too hung up on the cringe-worthy dialogue.        Rating: B+

2.  Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Summary from Goodreads:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen. With shades of Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, and The Thousand and One NightsAlif the Unseen is a tour de force debut—a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.

My review:  

I loved this book! It was a strange mix of elements that probably shouldn’t have worked together, but definitely did. It reminded me of Neverwhere by Neal Gaiman mixed with Ready Player One set in the Middle East… or something like that. Technology, magic, religion, Middle Eastern culture–I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it. Totally awesome.

Alex’s review:

I think it’s safe to say that I haven’t ever read a book like this. At points, I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but the Middle Eastern setting and mythology were both fascinating. Plus, the idea of pulling mysticism and technology together was very nicely done. Great book for anyone who wants likable characters to take them through a bit of a mindfudge.      Rating: A-

3.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Summary from Goodreads:

A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.

My review:  

I really, really enjoyed this one. As I think about it, it’s not without flaws: the characterization sometimes seems a bit thin, the ending is too abrupt… But I really didn’t care so much, because it was fun and clever and bookishly nerdy, which I obviously love. And while I’m a little sick of first person narration, it didn’t bother me in this one because the main character was just so likable.  The most fun book I read last year.  This book is a win.

Alex’s review:  

The latest in a slew of books I’ve read about the secret lives of computer programmers, I might have enjoyed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore the most. It shared many of the things I liked about Alif the Unseen–a romantic perspective on books, shady conspiracies and likable nerdy characters. A Murakami comparison might be a bit of a stretch–I found Sloan’s writing to be more similar to a Dan Brown puzzler, other than the fact that he lacks Brown’s pretension and self-love. It was fun to piece together this global mystery that the characters approach as a real-life campaign of Dungeons and Dragons. Yet another novel that makes me wish I was better with computers. And numbers in general.       Rating: A-

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

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As a pair of nerdy English teachers, Alex and I have been awaiting the release of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby with excitement and maybe a little trepidation.  After all, it’s a ubiquitous piece American literature in high schools, rivaling Huck Finn for the title of most taught (but title of most hated probably belongs to The Scarlet Letter).  And, as noted in this excellent Flavorwire article, previous attempts to adapt this book have been less than successful.  And it makes sense, right?  One reviewer mentioned that the success of the novel is the prose, while the storyline borders on melodramatic.  So, how’d they do with this version?

Not bad.

Granted, it’s definitely too Baz Luhrmann-y.  It at times almost feels like someone parodying a Baz Luhrmann movie.  But where the movie excels is in the quieter moments, the brief interludes where Luhrmann lets the amazing cast take over and do their thing.  And the cast really is stellar–Leonardo DiCaprio is an excellently tweaked, yet charismatic Gatsby, Carey Mulligan plays Daisy with the right blend of charming naivete and cutting indifference, and Joel Edgerton is appropriately sinister without veering into mustache-twirling territory.  I agree with other reviewers who haven’t liked Toby MacGuire as Nick–to be fair to him, the character always felt underwritten to me, and I generally dislike him in pretty much everything.   Overall, a decent, but not perfect effort.  It might even lure a few more readers in to that dreaded American lit. curriculum.

Want more Gatsby action?  Check out Alex’s interview in the Deseret News on teaching Gatsby.  He always looks so cool.

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