& Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Vintage, January 2011

Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Vintage, January 2011

The Book Itself: Honestly, this cover freaked me out! When I put it down for the night, I’d have to turn it face down so the unsettling robot wouldn’t greet me when I woke up. It does a great job capturing what would have been a very scary last thing to see though….

My ReviewThey are in your house. They are in your car. They are in the skies…Now they’re coming for you.

In the near future, at a moment no one will notice, all the dazzling technology that runs our world will unite and turn against us. Taking on the persona of a shy human boy, a childlike but massively powerful artificial intelligence known as Archos comes online and assumes control over the global network of machines that regulate everything from transportation to utilities, defense and communication. In the months leading up to this, sporadic glitches are noticed by a handful of unconnected humans – a single mother disconcerted by her daughter’s menacing “smart” toys, a lonely Japanese bachelor who is victimized by his domestic robot companion, an isolated U.S. soldier who witnesses a ‘pacification unit’ go haywire – but most are unaware of the growing rebellion until it is too late.

When the Robot War ignites — at a moment known later as Zero Hour — humankind will be both decimated and, possibly, for the first time in history, united. Robopocalypse is a brilliantly conceived action-filled epic, a terrifying story with heart-stopping implications for the real technology all around us…and an entertaining and engaging thriller unlike anything else written in years.

Robopocalypse is written in the style most people are now associating with World War Z – a survivor’s manuscript, compiled of news articles, radio transmissions, and interviews from those who experienced the robot uprising. There are chilling accounts from children in which their toys come alive (that chapter is very creepy, and of course I happened to be reading it at night…), personal anecdotes from the man who is gathering all this information together about his experiences in the robot war, as well as narratives pieced together from audio and visual output from security cameras. It seeks to do what World War Z did: create an impactful story about characters’ experiences when the outcome is already known.

First off, Robopocalypse is more linear than Z was. While Z jumped around the timeline, showing snippets from the turning points in the war alongside outbreak stories from around the world, the scope of Robopocalypse is a little smaller, and the time progression is a pretty steady slope. This might make the story less confusing, but also tends to make me question the format. If you’re going to tell a linear story anyway, why not make it a straight narrative? Why not do away with the set up required for survivor stories, transcripts, etc.

I think the choice has more to do with the emotional impact survivor records aim for, but I actually found the most sympathetic character to be a robot…

Niner, a robot not like the others trying to run around and kill everyone, is one of the most well-rounded, sympathetic characters in the book. And he’s not even introduced until the near end. He is smart, kind, almost saint-like in his understanding. And his relationships with the humans in his party is fascinating. But the book waits a little too long to bring him up. I left the book wanting to hear more about him and from him, and hoping that the second installment featured him heavily (I believe it does?)

I suppose my problem was that the book felt like a build up to something big, when we already knew how the something big turns out. In the opening chapters, Archos – our main robot baddie – is found and destroyed. So the entirety of Robopocalypse is leading up to that, and it took a long while to wind up to the good stuff.

I will say that the good stuff really is good. There is one chapter that is merely the description of a photograph of survivors. And it is so well-written, and so impactful, I went back and read it a few times. It describes what happens to the characters in the photograph moments later, and it is the lead-in the main fight of the novel. I found that, and the fight to be suspenseful, and, well…awesome (not the bunch of people dying part. But the way it was done and described was meaningful yet action-packed).

We still don’t know how some of these characters link up. And it seemed strange to read a first installment whose main work was to set up background for book two. I know that seems like a definition of a first installment, but I wanted more to happen, and to know and like some of these characters more than I did. The book seems like the climbing action to a finale that I have yet to read.

Nitpicking aside, read it if you liked World War Z, and/or if you look around at the technology in our lives and go…what if? It is a good read, and I’ll be reading the sequel…because I kind of feel like I have to to get the whole picture.

My Grade: B

& Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. Fiction. Publisher: Crown, 2015

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. Fiction. Publisher: Crown, 2015

The Book Itself: This. Cover. I adore it. Who is the artist, because I need prints of this and a whole bunch of other art he/she does. It’s so ethereal and awesome!

My Review: As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, sending the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance.

In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland (“landlockers”) and those who float on the sea (“damplings”), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives–offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.

Just look at that cover…wouldn’t you pick it up, too? This is one of those books where I saw it, fell a little bit in cover-love, and then I read the synopsis and fell a little bit in synopsis-love. It looked and sounded so cool and interesting! Sailing circuses! Water-people and land-people! Bear tamers and ringleaders and trapeze artists (oh my!)!

It has been compared to Night Circus…but the fact that they both include circuses in their plot is pretty much the end of those similarities. Night Circus had a bright, magical quality to the writing and setting. The Gracekeepers is definitely more subdued and gritty. Death is a predominant theme in Gracekeepers: one of the main characters takes care of the dead in underwater burial ceremonies. North is motherless, and lives with the bear she performs with, aware in every scene that he could turn on her and harm her (or worse).

There are some minor characters that Logan tries to give their moment in the sun.  A few of them narrate a couple of chapters. But they’re not as strongly outlined as North and Callanish. They’re chapters serve to fill in a few of the information gaps in North’s knowledge of the circus’ inner-workings, or a stranger’s impression of Callanish’s strange habits, but overall the secondary characters aren’t as strong.

I lagged a bit reading The Gracekeepers. I’m not sure if it was the gloomy tone or the slow-paced plot or even the characters, but this one didn’t grab me.

I will say something for the atmosphere and tone though: it is all very well built. The world Gracekeepers inhabits is a misty, mysterious moor of islands scattered throughout a large body of water. The main landmass has a nature-based religion all its own, centered on a giant tree where weddings, funerals, and births are celebrated at the base. Other than the floating circus, enormous ships carry members of a more Christian- or Catholic-based religion, performing passion plays every night and frowning on those who worship the nature religion. It’s a marvelously built world system, with the relationships between communities and the characters introduced gradually. There is a conflict between those who choose to live their lives on land, and those on the water, and even those who desire both. And that relationship is explored pretty well, too.

There are some other, more hazy themes that I wish were either explored further, or left alone. The concept of mermaids actually plays kind of a key role, but it’s all but casually mentioned. There are mermaids. Sometimes they sleep with humans. That’s about it. Literally. There is a gorgeous description of an underwater kingdom (that I think had to do with the mermaids? That connection is hazy at best), but it is described and then left alone. Tell me more about that! I wanted to shout. That sounds cool!

I was not besotted with any character. Even North and Callanish seemed a little drab. Their world was complex and wonderfully tension-filled,  but I kept wanting them to do more. They let their circumstances and pasts bring them down, and even the epilogue left me just shrugging, ready to move on to something else.

It’s beautifully written in parts. I just wish I got more out of the characters for it.

My Grade: C

& Reviews: The Invisibles by Cecilia Galante

The Invisibles by Cecilia Galante. Fiction. Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks, August 2015

The Invisibles by Cecilia Galante. Fiction. Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks, August 2015

The Book Itself: I like this splatter-paint, cityscape watercolor background. It’s what drew me to pick up the book and read the back in the first place.

My ReviewThrown together by chance as teenagers at Turning Winds Home for Girls, Nora, Ozzie, Monica, and Grace quickly bond over their troubled pasts and form their own family which they dub The Invisibles. But when tragedy strikes after graduation, Nora is left to deal with the horrifying aftermath alone as the other three girls leave home and don’t look back.

Fourteen years later, Nora is living a quiet, single life working in the local library. She is content to focus on her collection of “first lines” (her favorite opening lines from novels) and her dog, Alice Walker, when out-of-the-blue Ozzie calls her on her thirty-second birthday. But after all these years, Ozzie hasn’t called her to wish a happy birthday. Instead, she tells Nora that Grace attempted suicide and is pleading for The Invisibles to convene again. Nora is torn: she is thrilled at the thought of being in touch with her friends, and yet she is hesitant at seeing these women after such a long and silent period of time. Bolstered by her friends at the library, Nora joinsThe Invisibles in Chicago for a reunion that sets off an extraordinary chain of events that will change each of their lives forever.

The Invisibles is an unforgettable novel that asks the questions: How much of our pasts define our present selves? And what does it take to let go of some of our most painful wounds and move on?

When I became old enough to start reading books out of the “Young Adult” section in the bookstore, my mom and I had this frequent complaint that every single one seemed to feature a broken family. It wasn’t that we didn’t know people who grew up in a “broken” home (what a horrible adjective), or that we were cold-hearted and without sympathy. But it was a trope that every author clung to. Kind of like all of the vampire series after Twilight had its run. And the dystopian wave that is still eddying post-Hunger Games. That was probably why I began to turn to fantasy, picking up Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

It was a scenario I could not personally insert myself into. I was and am very fortunate to have a great relationship with both of my parents, who are still married to each other, in one house for the first eighteen years of my life. I still consider my mother to be my best friend. That’s a situation not everyone had growing up, and I tried not to take it for granted.

But I can still feel the sucker punch emotional reaction of a character or person in real life who grew up with so much against them. I knew going into The Invisibles that I might be in for a whole lot of hurt.

Because all our girls here came from broken homes. That’s what drew them together, literally – they lived in the same girl’s home through high school – and figuratively – meeting once a month for the sole purpose of giving each other comfort and support. But at a point, that background becomes a crutch for character building: it can be the character’s only defining trait, and it can get cloying.

Nora lives an incredibly private existence in the same town as the home for girls where they all grew up. She walks her dog, obsesses over the first lines in literature, and works at the library. That’s pretty much it. When Grace, her religious roommate from Turning Winds, tries to commit suicide, the bossy leader of the group, Ozzie, rallies them all for an intervention of sorts. This intervention turns into a rollercoaster, snowball-rolling slide of revelations and a digging up of the horrible secrets in the past.

And the main problem with all of the girls is that they have all grown into traits exhibited by their absent parents. “I am becoming my mother” is a little overused in several of the women. As is “I’m making up for the lack of love in my childhood.” I think that’s actually said a few times in the story. And the story gets a little heavy-handed with the metaphors/deep thoughts throughout. All of it begins to sound a little melodramatic, kind of like I’m reading a soap opera.

There is a twist having to do with Nora, but it is pretty obvious if you pay attention to her weird phobias and aversions. It does pack a huge, heavy, emotional punch though. I was certainly affected. It’s a horrifying, terribly sad event, that unfortunately doesn’t come as a great surprise, considering the beatings, physical and emotional, these women have taken.

It’s not a “nice” story, but it’s a good one. It is well-written, if a little too reliant on how an abusive and/or neglected past forms your future and the person you become. It isn’t necessarily a feel good read, but it’s emotional and at times, powerful.

My Grade: C

& Fridays: I Am About to Write (Another) Book

I’m sorry, I can’t hear you from the blanket fort I have constructed, bags of chocolate and snacks within arms reach, laptop providing the light for the scene.

Okay, this isn’t actually my set up, but that sounds awesome, doesn’t it?!

You see, ladies and gentlemen, I am embarking on writing a novel this month. 50,000 words in 30 days.

AHHHHHHHHHHH! (multiplied by about a million)

If you haven’t heard of National Novel Writing Month…it’s pretty self-explanatory. You write a novel (albeit a small one) in 30 days. You can start typing away at midnight on November 1st, but you must hit 50k by November 30th.

And that’s it.

The rest is up to you.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo (abbreviated because writing out National Novel Writing Month is exhausting to type and say after a while…) the last two years. And I completed it both times! 50,000 words in 30 days. TWICE! I’m a little proud.

But it’s kind of a lot of pressure to complete it again. Third times a charm, right? (where on earth did that saying come from? Who is doing what three times and why is it charming?!)

I’m always sitting on a couple of major plot ideas, and it took me a while to settle on the subject for this year’s NaNoWriMo. Because I’m a planner. I wanted most of it planned out before I sit there on November 1st and actually have to write the words. When I first decided I wanted to do NaNo, back in 2013, I did a practice run to make sure I could do it (yeah, I’m a nerd…). And I planned EVERYTHING. I had character names and profiles and plot maps and timelines and the point I wanted to get to in the story at each part of the month.

I haven’t been quite that organized since.

But I get really freaked out if I go into NaNoWriMo blind! I’ve managed to chug through, but who knows what might happen??

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. Publisher: Chronicle Books, September 2004

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. Publisher: Chronicle Books, September 2004

I have given myself a few more resources though. Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote this great book called No Plot? No Problem! (see, even he is trying to get me to lighten up about lack of planning!). It’s chock full of great information for writing in general, but it’s tailored to the NaNoWriMo format of 30 days to a rough draft.

He’s recently re-released it with new content, which makes me feel like I need to buy the book all over again, DANGIT!!

 

 

 

 

Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Publisher: Writers Digest Books, January 2008

Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Publisher: Writers Digest Books, January 2008

Book in a Month (again, really self-explanatory) has also proven excellent this time around, with worksheets and exercises for every week that help you suss out your plot, key scenes, and themes you want to explore in the work.

The only problem is that right now, I haven’t fleshed out all of my key scenes OR themes.

ACK!

I’ll be obsessing over and updating about NaNoWriMo all month. And don’t worry, blog shenanigans will continue as scheduled throughout November (I have to have something else to write besides the book!)

& Review: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Fiction. Publisher: Simon & Schuster, August 2015

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Fiction. Publisher: Simon & Schuster, August 2015

The Book Itself: Graphic and Inception-y  = awesome! A book about a woman involved in books.

My ReviewIn “A Window Opens,” beloved books editor at “Glamour” magazine Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). She is a mostly-happily married mother of three, an attentive daughter, an ambivalent dog-owner, a part-time editor, a loyal neighbor and a Zen commuter. She is not: a cook, a craftswoman, a decorator, an active PTA member, a natural caretaker or the breadwinner. But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in–and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers―an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life―seems suddenly within reach.

Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up and her work takes an unexpected turn. Readers will cheer as Alice realizes the question is not whether it’s possible to have it all, but what does she―Alice Pearse―really want?

I am disappointed with that synopsis.

You know why? It makes the story sound flippant, the characters sassy but flat. Whereas I found the characters, for the most part, to be complex, flawed (in a good way), and nice to spend time with. I think the book deserves a better blurb.

It makes this sound like chick lit to the max, with a healthy dose of glamorous magazine world thrown in (the author was, after all, a writer for Glamour – it’s a magazine I happen to love, but I didn’t want a book obsessed with that). I found it to be much more about finding oneself in a job…and maybe not liking what you see. It was about dealing with a sick parent…amongst life in all of its busy, stressful glory. It was about trying to be there for your kids…and your husband, and your parents, and yourself. I liked the layers at work here, and found that even if Alice complained a lot and made a lot of questionable decisions, I liked reading about her coming to realizations and balancing everything.

The book certainly triggered an emotional reaction in me as well. No one wants to think about a parent getting sick, let alone getting seriously, life-threateningly sick. And for Alice, this is the cherry on the top of a husband who has lost his job and is trying to strike out on his own,  three kids who are growing up with less and less of their mother, a best friend who hates where Alice has chosen to work and considers it a personal insult, and a new job that is proving much more challenging, and different than what she signed up for. All of these things make you feel bad for Alice, but the way her father’s illness is handled in the book is deft and, in a way, lovely. It affects the tone of everything else in a way that it should.

All this is not to say that there aren’t some cloying aspects to the story. It product-name drops. Alice sometimes picks up her Baggalini bag and chooses between her Tommy Hilfiger minidress or the Herve Leger wrap dress (these aren’t actually the brands used within the narrative, but you get the idea). It might add a touch of modernism, but I don’t want to have to look up the exact bag Alice is rooting through, or the dress she keeps smoothing over her legs when she sits. Maybe the core audience knows all of those brands right off the bat, but I just found it to detract from the story as I read.

And Alice herself can get cloying. She clearly has an awful boss, and you want to shake her every time she flip-flops about liking her as a person. She sometimes treats her husband (a rather flat character, even though he’s a key factor in everything that’s going on. I wish he got more story time) like total crap, and the same goes with her parents and brother. But she’s your main character, and you want to root for her. Eventually she sees the error of her ways.

So this book isn’t as fluffy as that synopsis and the recommendations in the magazines would have you believe. There’s a real emotional root and backbone to Alice’s character arc. I liked it, and you will too – just ignore the blurb.

My Grade: B