& Review: The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson. Fiction. Publisher: Tor Books.

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson. Fiction. Publisher: Tor Books.

The Book Itself: Wait, what is the title of this book? There’s really no doubt of it here. But it is graphic and catchy, so I guess I shouldn’t make fun of it so much…

My Review: In our rapidly changing world of social media, everyday people are more and more able to sort themselves into social groups based on finer and finer criteria. In the near future of Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities, this process is supercharged by new analytic technologies: genetic, brain-mapping, behavioral. To join one of the twenty-two Affinities is to change one’s life. It’s like family, and more than family. Your fellow members aren’t just like you, and they aren’t just people who are likely to like you. They’re also the people with whom you can best cooperate in all areas of life, creative, interpersonal, even financial.

At loose ends both professional and personal, young Adam Fisk takes the suite of tests to see whether he qualifies for any of the Affinities and finds that he’s a match for one of the largest, the one called Tau. It’s utopian–at first. His problems resolve themselves as he becomes part of a global network of people dedicated to helping one another, to helping him, but as the differing Affinities put their new powers to the test, they begin to rapidly chip away at the power of governments, of global corporations, and of all the institutions of the old world; then, with dreadful inevitability, the different Affinities begin to go to war with one another.

This book should have the sub-title: Social Media Gone Wild!

Not really, but that is essentially the concept here.

Social media has taken personality quizzes way too far in this dystopian tale. Once you take an assessment, it categorizes you as one of over twenty different affinities. You then have the option of attending meetings and even living with other people in that Affinity.

So of course the whole thing turns into a kind of class warfare. Because of course not everybody fits neatly and nicely into an affinity label. And the world Robert Charles Wilson sets his novel in is already fraying at the edges: Adam Fisk, our protagonist, witnesses a rather violent rally a few pages into the narrative.

Adam is your typical Aimless Youth before he joins an Affinity. His bond with his new fellow Taus quickly becomes all-consuming, until he’s drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid, so to speak, and believes Affinities should become more than just a social club to make new friends. Perhaps they should also take some political charge in the world at large.

The timeline gets a little jumpy. We go from Adam’s first meet-and-greet with the local Tau chapter to three years later, en route to a mysterious meeting. I would think the first year or two would be crucial! It’s Adam’s first foray into these huge new organizations, and the story just skips over it. It jumps, then info dumps to get you semi-caught up. It’s a book that I wish dwelled more on the details of its central conceit, instead of rushing past and glossing over some of the nitty gritty plot pieces that I feel would really flesh out the story and characters.

To start off with, what are the affinities? You get a broad brushstrokes overview of them: there are 22 of them and about 4 are considered “major” Affinities. But what makes them different? What on the assessment files people away into these all-consuming clubs? What made it worse for me is that you only get generalities of a couple of Affinities. Het, the Taus mortal enemies, are brutes, with personalities prone to violence. What makes a Tau a Tau? They smoke more marijuana than most. This point is brought up more than a few times, and as far as I can tell, that’s what sets the Taus apart. It’s not enough. For a story so focused on the tight-knit nature of these newly formed groups, I don’t ever truly understand what the groups are based on. This irked me the entire book.

Overall, it’s supposed to be a social science fiction book. That’s what the synopsis reads like to me. And I loved the idea. It took very little time between reading the book jacket on the hardcover in the store and deciding to buy it, full price. But what the book actually is is a political, broad picture image of a good but poorly executed concept. I read this book in about two days…but it was more because I was waiting for the book to dwell, to get to the good stuff. Not my cup of tea.

My Grade: C-

& Fridays: A Slight Notebook Problem…

Right on the heels of a post about my slight addiction to writing books comes a post about my out-of-control notebook buying habit!

I would count the number of unfilled notebooks I have on my shelf, but I don’t want to depress myself. I constantly say “I don’t need another notebook,” but that’s usually when I have another really awesome notebook in my hands, about to be purchased.

Is it something about the potential of an unfilled notebook? Or is it just because I have a bad case of cover-love/cover-lust and can’t resist a gorgeous cover or creamy pages, ready for me to put my thoughts to paper? Whatever it is, it really should stop. But it probably won’t.

I’ve got the full gauntlet of notebooks either crammed onto a bookshelf or in one of my desk drawers. Big, leather bound tomes, skinny deck-of-cards-sized booklets for jotting down quick ideas, plain covers, intricate covers, skinny, huge, you name it!

A collection of Decomposition Books. Take a look/buy them here.

A collection of Decomposition Books. Take a look/buy them here.

I’ve been writing in standard sized composition books for my writing exercises every day. I really like Decomposition Books, which have awesome covers and even cooler end papers. They’re sturdy too, which is good because I’m smashing them into huge satchel purses all the time.

 

 

 

A notebook for writing, a notebook for reading!

A notebook for writing, a notebook for reading!

I also currently have two smaller notebooks that I carry around with me (you guessed it: I always have a jam-packed, humongous purse. It makes me really popular to smuggle treats into movie theaters though!) from Compendium notebooks. They’re slim, paperback-novel-sized books that are crazy amazing. They have great paper quality, and they’re themed! I have one for writing, with a typewriter on the cover,

The writing themed pages and quotes

The writing themed pages and quotes

pencil lines for the lined pages, and writing quotes throughout, and a reading-themed one, with antique-looking paper innards and reading quotes throughout. I think they’re gorgeously designed, and I love me some quotes! I use the book-themed one for blog ideas and notes on the book(s) I’m reading, and the writing-themed one for any stray story, character, or scene ideas that float through my head throughout the day. It’s been an excellent system so far, and if I need to downsize my purse, they fit in my smaller bags too!

This is too much fun, so come back next week for a continuation of the notebook love!

& Review: Armada by Ernest Cline

Armada by Ernest Cline. Publisher: Crown Publishing

Armada by Ernest Cline. Publisher: Crown Publishing

The Book Itself: Very vintage video game with the cover. And the green triangles are used throughout the story to signify enemies.

My Review: For those of you who enjoy any kind of television show or fandom, and haven’t read Cline’s first book Ready Player One, stop reading this right now and go read it. I will send you my copy. Just do it.

Ready Player One is a wonderful, nerdy, thrilling, action-packed read. Imagine Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka were one person. Imagine Steve Wonka then revolutionized the way we go to school and work by creating a massive online virtual reality universe where everyone goes to escape the real world (in its third decade of economic collapse). Then Steve Wonka dies. And leaves his entire fortune and company to whoever can find the Easter eggs he buried in this massive virtual reality, and follow the scavenger hunt that follows.

No one finds the first clue for five years. Then our hero, Wade Watts, all of ­­­­­eighteen years old, does.

As an indication of how good it is: I gave a copy to my younger brother (not a big reader). And he read it in a day. I came across him in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages, with that crazed look on his face, saying “I have to finish reading it!”

Now that I’ve bullied you into reading a book you’re not even sure you want to read yet, I’m going to segway right into talking about Cline’s second book, Armada. Don’t worry, you won’t have to have read Ready Player One to understand or appreciate this one (but please still do).

Armada is in the same nerdy vein as Ready Player One. We’ve got our young, nerdy protagonist, kind of stuck in life, working at a video game store. This time, the video game of choice is Armada, a shoot-the-aliens-before-they-destroy-Earth kind of deal. He’s good at it: top ten in the world good.

Turns out the aliens are real. Their threat to Earth is real. And Zack Lightman is one of the best hopes for humanity’s survival.

No pressure, or anything.

Reading Armada is like coming home again to the world of Ready Player One (although, again, you do not need to read one before the other). You can tell Ernest Cline is just a great big geek, stuffing as many references to nerd-dom – Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Buckaroo Banzai, World of Warcraft, etc. etc. etc. – into his books as he can, and relishing the idea that fellow nerds are connecting to each other through these worlds. It’s tough to keep up with the references. I’m a fangirl of several franchises myself, but the sheer number of robots, monsters, technology, and even fandom-inspired tattoos boggled my mind. It could trip someone up, not knowing what a song sounds like or what a fighting killer robot looks like on sheer mention alone. The idea is that you look it up and get hooked on another series, I’m sure.

Once Zack Lightman learns of his fate (and the fate of the entire world, should he fail), the book takes off on one trippy rollercoaster. It’s an interesting, if rather hollow idea: the government has been preparing us for the real alien invasion through alien movies, video games, and TV shows because they know the threat is real and coming to get us. I don’t think that would really lessen the blow any. Sure, it’d be nice if everyone accepted it and rallied together to fight those alien baddies, but I think the reality would be more like widespread panic and lots of destruction.

But this is a hero tale, so say it with me: aliens and video games are real!

Zack is zipped along to training camp, a military base to prepare for the attack, and then finally to the fight (the final boss, if you will). You don’t get a lot of breathing room. Which is fine. It’s completely appropriate for the idea here: aliens are coming, don’t waste time on every person’s backstory and character arc! But you are introduced to lots of people, very quickly (and then a lot of those newbies die – sorry, it’s the apocalypse. That happens).

Not to say that the characters don’t gut you. I found this one to be much more tug-at-your-heartstrings than Ready Player One. The stakes are ratcheted higher, more quickly here. You know people are going to die and seeing the way they interact with each other before it all goes down is very powerful.

My biggest problem is *sigh* the ending. It’s all wrapped up so fast; I had to re-read the last thirty pages, I was so shocked it ended the way it did. I knew it was coming. I saw the meager amount of pages left before the book would be over, and knew that it was not enough for everything to get a nice little bow on it. But you get whiplash from the abrupt stop. It ends too easy. Is that really it? I remember thinking. So…is there going to be a sequel, then? Whether there is or not, it’s clumsy in its full-stop conclusion. We’ve fallen for these characters: we need a more powerful finish.

All in all, Armada is an excellent, geeky-fun read, with some powerful emotion behind some of its characters and motives. I’d still give the crown to Ready Player One, but fans will love returning to the name-dropping, ass-kicking spirit of Armada’s predecessor.

My Grade: B+

& Fridays: Readers Who Write

I wrote fifteen pages in a beat up notebook when I was younger and thought it would become my best-selling novel. The cover of the notebook had a black and white puppy with a red Frisbee in its mouth. I’m sure I have it stored away somewhere, and I’m sure the story is terrible. But the point is, I was bitten by the writing bug young. And I am still filling notebooks with stories and ideas and character sketches, hoping that one day one of them will become a book.

As with any of my hobbies, I wanted to be well-read on it. So I have amassed quite the collection of writing books over the years. Now…how many of them have I actually read? Not a whole lot. But they take up a healthy shelf and a half of my shiny new bookcases, so I thought I’d share a little bit of that world with you today!

The Incredible Little Book of 10,001 Names for Horses by Barbara Mannis and Catherine Lewis. Publisher: Horse Hollow Press

The Incredible Little Book of 10,001 Names for Horses by Barbara Mannis and Catherine Lewis. Publisher: Horse Hollow Press

I can pinpoint the origin of my writing book collection to one strange, small source. The Incredible Little Book of 10,001 Names for Horses. When I was about seven, I became obsessed with horses. The Breyer horse models, the Thoroughbred chapter books, I even had a wallpaper border near the ceiling of my bedroom depicting horses running through a watercolor field. A lot of my stories (flash fiction or vignettes I’m sure they’d be called now…I don’t think I ever wrote one to its conclusion) featured horses or horse barns or horseback riders. I don’t know where I found 10,000 Names for Horses, but it’s this tiny, rectangular book with names like Just My Imagination,Material Witness, and Stormy Monday in its pages. I gobbled it up, making lists of names I liked, writing stories where I just threw a bunch of horses in there with cool names. It was the first time I used something from a non-fiction book to help with my writing. And suddenly I wanted more than just names. I bought used copies of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The concepts flew way over my head, but I was rejoicing: there were books about writing!

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer. Publisher: Abrams Image

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer. Publisher: Abrams Image

Fast-forward to now, where I bite my lip looking at the shelf I’ve stuffed full with such books, going I should really buckle down and read some of these. I really want to spend a long, rainy day buried in the beautifully illustrated Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer, or filling out the short prompt in 642 Things to Write About (of which I got two copies as gifts – my friends and family know me well).

ONE DAY that will happen. In the meantime, I buy used baby name books and write “Character Naming Guide” on the front so I don’t freak out my significant other or my parents (those name books been SUPER helpful in my daily writing exercises, though. I just flip to a random page and insert a character name that suits my fancy!)

 

Shhhh! These are baby name books. But really, they're just a great source for character names!

Shhhh! These are baby name books. But really, they’re just a great source for character names!

How about you, my reading friends? Do you find yourself compelled to write stories like the ones you read? Do you draw fan art of the characters that are so vivid in your head? (Man I wish I was a good artist)

& Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by  Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. Fiction. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. Fiction. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books.

The Book Itself: I love the playful cover! I don’t know if it’s that playful of a book, but the graphic cover does a good job with hinting at some otherworldly aspects that might be buried in the story (is the snow falling out of that book? Why/how is that window hanging out in midair?

My Review: Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: a young literature teacher named Ella.

Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried for years start to come to light. . . .

I might create a superlative for this book during my second annual “Book Awards” at the end of December this year. This one would definitely earn the “Strangest Book I’ve Read” award (well…so far this year).

The concept really drew me in. A not-so-secret society of popular authors in a small town have never opened their ranks to anyone else…until now. An uber-famous author of children’s books has never had so much as a speedbump on her stellar career…until now. A substitute school teacher hasn’t had such an exciting life…until now.

I love to write. I love to read. A book about a society of writers and their famous writer mentor seemed like a perfect fit. But it’s an odd little duck of a novel.

Confession time: I am not a very diverse reader. I read mainly fiction and science fiction/fantasy novels from mainly American authors.Rabbit Back was originally published in Finland. I will not pretend to know the cultural influences on Finnish literature. I don’t know if a lot of Finnish literature is like Rabbit Back. So I won’t blame my disconnect with the story on its origin (because that would be 1. horrible/culturally ignorant/short-sighted, and 2. dismissive of the story itself).

Okay, disclaimer over. What Rabbit Back does well is a solid unfurling of its central mystery. I don’t know how else to put it other than that. It reveals pieces of plot and secrets of the society’s members at a good clip, and a good pace. The synopsis of the book lets you know that not everything is as it seems with this society, and the plot reveals it very well. It seemed like every scene contributed to the big reveal. Every interaction unveiled a little bit more of what was really going on, and how Ella Milana’s (never just Ella) encounters with other members got to the thorn of the society’s rosy center.

I also highlighted passage after passage in my digital copy. So many insights into writers and how they think and operate and the intricacies of a writing life rang true for me. Or at least I wanted them to be true for me. Jääskeläinen also allows the different writers to have different philosophies, and those ring out throughout the text. I liked that the writers weren’t just cookie cutter copies of one another’s thoughts and practices.

But the story quite literally fell apart for me. I thought the climax was nearly unrecognizable, and the conclusion nonsensical. Ella Milana and one of the authors find themselves facing the society’s mystery head-on. And then….a whole bunch of strange, magical realism stuff happens…and then we jump to a quick summation of What Everyone is Doing Now.

I reread the scene, I was so perplexed. It seems like such a big ball of loose ends! What actually happened?! Did they solve the mystery? Are weird things going to stop happening in the town? What is up with Laura White, the supposed backbone to this society? Does anyone reap any consequences in this town, ever?

My head swirled with questions, and not the good philosophizing kind that happens when you read a challenging book. It wasn’t for me, but I did like the pacing and philosophies of some of the story’s characters.

My Grade: C-

& Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. Fiction. Publisher: Mulholland Books.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. Fiction. Publisher: Mulholland Books.

The Book Itself: It’s an interesting choice of cover…the red border, the honeybee, the vintage-style woman’s portrait. I’m not sure how it all pertains to the story, or how it all comes together logistically as a cover, but I do like the title!

My Review: In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens on to other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women, burning with potential. Curtis stalks them through their lives across different eras until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and starts hunting him back.

Working with a former homicide reporter who is falling for her, Kirby races against time and reason to unravel an impossible mystery.

I am a great big wimp. Have I mentioned this before? I cannot abide anything scary. No horror flicks for me! When I’m home alone, all the lights are on and the TV is on loud enough that I can hear it in the other room. It’s a product of my vivid imagination. As soon as the twig snaps, I’m thinking about what kind of vicious animal or psychopathic serial killer it could be.

It doesn’t help that I enjoy watching crime shows. My mom and I love watching Criminal Minds because the characters solving the crimes are so complex and likable (Garcia! Reed!). I just started season 3 of Supernatural (great, now instead of a serial killer outside my window I’ll think it’s a shapeshifter or vengeful spirit…). And what I like about most of these crime shows is the backstory – bad guys included. In Criminal Minds, you have people with backgrounds so tragic and heartbreaking that you understand (to a certain extent) why they don’t exactly deal with obstacles or daily life in a constructive way.

What I’m trying to slow-walk my way to saying is that it can be interesting to get into a flawed character’s head. And time-traveling serial killer is about as flawed as you can get.

What an interesting concept though. A house whose door opens into any time in the last century, on the same block happens to fall into the hands of a psychopath who uses it to kill women. The house seems innocent. Its resident is not. But the line blurs here: is the house telling him to kill these “shining girls,” or is he so sick that he hallucinates the trophies he must take from them, convincing himself it is the only way to keep himself satisfied? There is a room in this house where Harper sees the items he takes from each girl nearly glowing in the dark. He can pinpoint which girl is next because her item glows brightest. But is it the magical, time-traveling properties of the house? Or is it all in Harper’s sick mind? I like that you didn’t know. The fuzzy line of blame sets the scene for a complex character and mystery.

Harper’s motivation for killing is a new one. He kills girls who seem to have the most potential.  They “shine” with fiercer personalities, and bigger dreams. They are specific – he stalks them through time, popping up at various times in their lives to make sure that potential is still there, and hi kills them when their potential is brightest, or when their potential starts to fall. It’s an interesting motivation. The concept of the girls “shining” fits in with the hallucinatory theme of the house and the items that lead Harper to kill. His motivation isn’t that he had a terrible childhood or he seeks vengeance for a wrongdoing in his past. He is evil for the sake of it, but he also cannot help it; the book is very good at building the idea that Harper cannot stop himself. This is just how he is.

But enough about our creepy friend Harper. Our protagonist, Kirby, is the One That Got Away. She survived Harper’s attack, and has scars both physically and emotionally to prove it. Understandably, she is dogged in her pursuit of the man who killed her. And when impossible parallels begin to appear (a baseball card of a player not yet in the Major Leagues is found on one of the women’s bodies), her focus becomes almost maniacal. She is also flawed, and her single-minded quest seems like an obsession similar to Harper’s. She doesn’t become a serial killer for her obsession, but the concept is interesting. Her encounter with Harper almost infects her, and that is an interesting dynamic for the book to explore.

The story itself is well-written and well-paced. Dan, the reporter Kirby aligns herself with, also gets a couple chapters told from his point of view, and he is a welcome change: observing the single-mindedness of Kirby and later, Harper. The plot could have used some more falling action, but the story sucked me in and didn’t let me go until the bitter end. I enjoyed the psychology of it and the touch of science fiction. A great read. Just don’t go walking past that row of creepy-looking houses on your way home…

My Grade: B+

& Review: I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest. YA Fiction. Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books.

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest. YA Fiction. Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books.

The Book Itself: Awesome cover! A real visual of the entire Princess X herself, and the wanted poster style for the title and author makes it intriguing – why is a cartoon on a wanted poster? What mysteries is the reader getting into here?

My Review: Best friends, big fans, a mysterious webcomic, and a long-lost girl collide in this riveting novel, perfect for fans of both Cory Doctorow and Sarah Dessen; illustrated throughout with comics.

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X?

When May looks around, she sees the Princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon—her best friend, Libby, who lives.

Some (okay, a lot) of YA books require you to suspend your disbelief. This is regular old YA fiction, so it’s supposed to be real world events (so, no interstellar travel or Hunger Games-like dystopian settings). In the real world setting of I Am Princess X, however, May is sent on a real-life scavenger hunt to find her best friend. Who didn’t die horrifically in a car crash/drowning incident like she thought she did. No, she was kidnapped and kept hostage by a psychopath. No big deal.

So…I’ll ignore temporarily that May didn’t know Princess X the webcomic existed. Even though it’s supposed to be a big online phenomenon and May seems like a typically connected teenager with social media accounts and a laptop and everything. I do find it tough to swallow that Princess X exists and it didn’t raise any red flags for anyone else. It’s very clearly based on some real-world terrible stuff. You can turn the teenage girl into a princess and rename her friends and family (the Needle Man? Come on, that’s creepy as all heck). But I’d think someone would look into that webcomic. Make sure everyone involved is all right.

Then I have to suspend my disbelief that May goes on this real world scavenger hunt (that no one else picked up on, even though a lot of the clues are landmarks in Seattle), and really bad people start hunting her down and she doesn’t ever seek help from, you know, responsible, helpful adults. It’s just her and another teenager against the world. And they’re woefully unprepared, and a tad stupid about it.

It’s not an incredibly well developed story arc. It gets interruptions from excerpts from the actual Princess X comic. Which seem cool: it’s a novel and graphic novel all in one! But we skip around in that story, too. We miss a lot in between, so it’s not consistent. I almost feel as if the excerpts shouldn’t be included! Even though they were one of the main reasons I flipped through and then decided to buy the book!

It’s certainly got a healthy dose of suspense. It’s unbelievable in the literal sense, but it’s a nice, neat package in the end. It’s made interesting with the Princess X comics, but I’ve read better done mysteries.

My Grade: C-