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Monday, July 14, 2014

The Books I Read: May - June 2014


vN by Madeline Ashby

In the first chapter, a five-year-old child robot eats her estranged grandmother, python-style, and goes from kindergartner to adult in an instant from the additional biomass.

Good opening, and there are some interesting WTF circumstances (like robots were created to fill out the Earth after the rapture) but the rest stagnates. Once again, it's a book where the robots don't act like robots. They act like people.  The only difference is they know they were artificially created. But other than that, they eat, they fall in love, they procreate. You can't tell the difference. The interesting things are just background -- they don't come into play with the plot and don't even make plausible sense in the scheme of the world.

The story is about programming as parenting. The problem is it felt more like a summer blockbuster action piece with chase sequences and romances that don't blossom until the end, and for me, those just don't work in a book format. It was a sludge to get through. It's a promising idea, and it does use some tropes like the existence of smart "gray goo" and robots in/as families in new ways. I can see this appealing to those few who liked A.I. and Brazil.


Finding Laura Buggs by Stanley Gordon West

This is a YA historical fiction novel, a rare breed. It takes place in 1950's Minnesota, the time when all those MST3K shorts and movies take place. The main plot is about a high school senior who just found out she's adopted (really a black market baby) and wants to find her birth parents. I don't know why any adopted kid would want to do that because there's no way it won't be a disappointment (there's a reason they were given up), but I'm not adopted so I can't say. Maybe I'm just made it's a common plot catalyst.  In between sleuthings, she visits an old folks home, goes out with her friends doing things you saw in American Graffiti, laments about the effects of war, and generally putzes around.

I feel like the story did a lot of pandering to Minnesota native. It makes sure to mention that it's the Snelling streetcar, not just the streetcar that everyone knows and no one needs to mention by name. Also, it takes a long time to get events moving. The first third of the novel, Laura Buggs is trying to get info out of the ninety-year-old lawyer that served as the intermediary. After this she learns that old people are actually kind of cool, like in Recess episode 112 (57a).

On the other hand, it also made me wish I was there, eating chocolate malts and riding streetcars without parents to helicopter. It's an enjoyable read, but I don't feel particularly satisfied after it.  There's a real disconnect between the happy optimism of the first 75% and the whip-turn ending.  I think it's audience is more for Minnesota senior citizens who will appreciate the old times and a good mystery.


Kendra by Coe Booth

In the ghetto, if a boy does anal sex on you, it means he's ready for a relationship.

This feels like Pride and Prejudice in the PJ's. This was another of John Green's recommendations of great books that aren't bestsellers, but I'm not sure what he found in this one. It reads like a generic YA romance but with the trappings of so many early 90's "gangsta" movies. Kind of. The main conflict is that Kendra's mother is back after her post-graduate degree, and Kendra's hoping she'll finally take her away from the neighborhood and the strict-ass grandmother who's been raising her for sixteen years.

But the bigger crux of the book is her boy crushes and her sexually acting out as a result of this negligence. Kendra's better than that, but the past is repeating herself as she waffles between the nice guy and the bad boy player, as cliche dictates. Of course, as far as generic YA romance goes, it ends there. Kendra pulls away from sex with the bad boy at the last second, cautious of losing her virginity (for disciplinary and moral reasons). He doesn't force himself or respect her wishes or grow resentful -- he's "going to need something". That devolves into booty calls in the closet after school leading to the butt sex so she can remain "chaste".

And after all that, the fudge packer confesses affectionate feelings for her. And they start going out together. Is this a realistic scenario? Yes. Maturity rides up fast in risky situations. Does it send a good message to American youth? No, it does not. I'm not going to say that a writer can't write what he/she wants, but I'm a believer that books "teach you that dragons can be killed".  This moral seems to be, if you give up the rough enough, love is just around the corner.


The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff

The most John Greeny of the John Green recommendations that I've gone through so far. It seems like the subject manner is mild-mannered, but in fact, it's awfully intense. To the point where I wanted to reach through the book and strangle some characters.

It takes place in the 70's-80's, following a young Jewish boy, the middle child in a very Jewish family, growing from kid to adult. His father is some kind of theater-director/entertainer and his mother is/was a SAHM until she wants to go to college. And there's an older brother who's his best buddy, but grows more rebellious and treats him like an older brother does.  Kinda like The Wonder Years without the Vietnam backdrop.

But the big character is the father -- the overbearing, Woody Allen-loving, temper-tantrum-having, overall-horrible human being father. Example: the very first scene is a moving-in party, where he drags every member of his family out in front of everyone for huge embarrassing introductions, like singing and dancing monkeys, showing them off like part of an act. Example: his son has a learning disability, but the father won't accept that his son just isn't trying hard enough.  He sings praises of him to other people, but when the doors are closed, he rants and raves like a sarcastic, insulting baby.  His father goes ballistic as the son keeps screwing up the Bar Mitzvah thank you cards with each try, because of the pressure. This causes an intense blow-up in the middle of the book where the father finally gets some people standing up to him.

The back of the book makes it seems like a dramedy, like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower". It's not. It's about a dysfunctional family, and a mentally abusive father, combined with some coming-of-age and Jewish themes. It's better than just "drunk dad beats his kid" a la Radio Flyer.


The End Games by T. Michael Martin

This is the book with the "Everything not saved will be lost -- Nintendo message" epigraph. It sounded promising, but did not deliver. The beginning was better than anything after it. Then it just becomes typical zombie story with typical "humans are the real enemy" plot. The characters are stock zombie tropes.

It's about a teenager and his little brother trying to survive the apocalypse. But the teenager has to frame the experience as a game, because the little brother is only five and will freak out if he thinks his life is in danger. Their goal to find their mother fades away after you get through the first act. On one hand, it's nice to have the caretaker relationship between brothers. On the other hand, the book is mostly about survival, not plot points, like The Boy at the End of the World.

I was hoping the video game metaphor extended through the book, but it doesn't. It acts more as a hook, and becomes weedy partway through. The book is really just a horror novel.


Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

I don't usually include comic books/graphic novels in these reviews, but I'm trying to catch up in this scene, and there's a lot of good stuff I missed. This is one of them.

It's an apocalypse scenario, not superheroes or science fiction, . Simply put, all the men on Earth suddenly die, except for one. What happens next is so intriguing as he travels the world and sees how it copes. Simply put, it's not all nurturing and caring. If men disappeared, the world would not become a haven. You still deal with Mad Max biker gangs, religious zealots, and desperate civilians.

I love this story. It's heart-wrenching and realistic. It has characters, it has plot points. It doesn't answer all the questions.  It's not about finding the goal, it's about the journey to it, and what's learned along the way. It's about gender dynamics and group politics and what people do when their backs are against the wall, and the best thing of all -- people solve things through cleverness and determination, not brute force.


Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome by John Scalzi

Scalzi released this as a companion novella to his upcoming book. You can buy it for a few dollars from Amazon or Nook or get it from Tor.com for free, which I did.

It's not so much a piece of fiction as a simple timeline of the backstory up to when I presume Lock-In starts. It's kinda dry. It feels more interested in imparting information than creating a story or memorable characters. Like Scalzi took his story bible and turned it into a novella. Which I don't blame him for -- I'd do the same thing. Good promotional material.

Unfortunately, I don't know how necessary it is to read this if you plan to read Lock-In. Scalzi says it isn't, but it feels like there's a lot of key details in this that lead up to something. But that something (people being able to enter others bodies and control them) may or may not be relevant. On its own though, it feels skippable.


Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

Hmph, another book with a Minnesota setting. A vastly different subject matter, but still...

Diablo Cody (the person who wrote Juno and fine-tuned The Evil Dead remake) displays her humble beginnings with a memoir of her experience as an outsider in the live-action sex industry. I've read books from people inside, but they've grown bitter and resentful of the field. I read those as research for Black Hole Son, but I should have read this one first. I was afraid it would be too perky and positive, and I wanted gritty.

But this book is neither, it's somewhere in-between. She writes with the same style in Juno, meaning quirky, creative metaphors that take sixty words to illustrate. I've never had to use my eReader's dictionary function so much. Half the content is similes about her situation. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy them, but at a certain point, it's ridiculous.  But damned if it doesn't get the point across in an entertaining way.

Some people criticized her for being too filthy or see the book as validation for her career choice. I don't. I found it page-turning, and more informative than the other stripper books I've read (there seems to be an astonishing lack of good books about the sex industry). I know she didn't become a stripper so she could write a book, but her motivations seem a little ambiguous. Still, she proves that she's more together than lots of the other working girls.

I liked how she was able to examine differences at each kind of strip club, from high end to low end to sex store peep shows. And she talks about the girls she met, the boredom and thrills, and how her personal life affected her stripper life. It's not strictly anthropological. It's a little more like a LiveJournal made into a book. It's sharp and witty, and even without the Minnesota ties I recognized, I would have enjoyed it. It reminds me of pre-Lena Dunham.


Vegan Vampire Vaginas by Wol-vriey
(unfinished)

The biggest problem with this book is that it's more about the sex than the story. It has bizarro elements, but really it's just sex. Sex, sex, sex. Mostly bizarre sex -- transsexual sex, vagina in a hand, living dildos. The plot stops as it takes multiple chapters to describe everyone's sex life between days. If you're into that, fine. It's not the sex that bothers me -- I'm a hard man to offend -- but it has nothing to do with the story. Nothing moves forward.

Besides that, the characters don't have distinguishable personalities. I can't tell one name from the other. They play roles, not personalities. It's like character soup, so it's hard to figure out who wants what and where the story is going.

It's like a portal fantasy, but I'm never quite sure of what the goal is supposed to be. For example, the main character is brought to the king because he (or his other personality, I dunno) knows where some stolen gold is. But the first thing they ask the truth-telling vagina-in-the-hand has nothing to do with this. It's not lazily written, but it seems the plot is missing fundamentals of story-telling - characterization of the lead, character wants something, goes through obstacles to get it.
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