Kris Milstead

Author's posts

Dec 23 2014

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir begins as a typical castaway tale:  the protagonist finds himself suddenly alone in a barren wasteland dependent only on his wits to survive.  In this case, however, the castaway is astronaut Mark Watney and the barren wasteland Mars.

A sudden sandstorm forces the Ares 3 crew to abort their mission early.  Mark, having been impaled by a satellite antenna and then seen tumbling down a hill, is presumed dead and left behind.  Mark survives his injuries but awakens to the realization that he is alone, the next manned mission isn’t scheduled to arrive for four years, and even with rationing he only has enough food to last a little over a year.

From the first line of the novel (“I’m pretty much fucked.”), Mark approaches his situation with humor and ingenuity.  Possessed of a firm stubborn streak, Mark decides that rather than be the first person to die on Mars, he’s going to be the first person to live on Mars.  So begins the “Mark Watney doesn’t die” project.

Quickly engaging the reader, the story follows Mark as he works to keep himself alive for the next four years.  Using personal log entries, Mark chronicles his successes (farming potatoes using a mixture of Earth and Martian soil combined with water made from rocket fuel) and his failures (nearly blowing himself into oblivion while trying to make said water).  Things get even more interesting when NASA realizes through analyzing satellite imagery that Mark is still alive.

Interspersed with the log entries are alternating chapters (told from a third person narrative) which show NASA in crisis mode and give the reader insight into the minds of those making life or death decisions from almost 250 million miles away.

Other reviewers have compared The Martian to Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, or even to early science fiction classics such as Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday or Welcome to Mars by James Blish.

Life as We Knew It shares very little with The Martian in my mind.  Both feature strong protagonists of above average intelligence, and both have a strong set of secondary characters designed to help the main character achieve survival, but the similarities end there.  The Martian  reads more in the style of classic science fiction, where Life As We Knew It, reads more like another in a long line of post-apocalyptic YA novels.

Comparing The Martian to No Man Friday or Welcome to Mars is far more fair, but both fall victim to their time period.  The scientific accuracy of No Man Friday is quite plausible for the mid 1950’s.  The narrator, Rex Gordon, follows much the same process as Mark Watney in producing oxygen and water, and the ship used to carry the seven astronauts to Mars bears a marked resemblance to the pointy rockets used in the early space race.  In addition, both novels clearly owe a considerable amount of their plots to Robinson Crusoe, and No Man Friday in fact references it frequently.  At this point however, their plots diverge as Gordon discovers and tries to communicate with giant Martian centipedes, while Mark remains alone.

In Welcome to Mars, eighteen year old Dolph Haertel invents an anti-gravity device and then, telling his parents he’s going camping for the weekend, sets off for Mars.  I am in fact not completely convinced that Welcome to Mars was not deliberately farsicle.  The novel is set sometime between the 1980’s and 1990’s and yet man has not yet travelled to the moon.  Also, Haertel’s science is described in the novel as having “swallowed Einstein the way Einstein swallowed Newton…”

Hartel is conveniently joined by his Earthly girlfriend with whom he left the instructions for his anti-gravity device and together they discover oxygen producing lichens growing on the planet.

Aside from the common element of becoming stranded, I did not feel that Welcome to Mars is a fair comparison to The Martian by even the most generous stretch of the imagination.

Searching for more reasonable comparisons, I found The Martian far more comparable to Year Zero by Rob Reid.

As with Year Zero, The Martian’s protagonist is a completely believable character.  While it would have been easy to create a hero who is in all ways better than everyone else, Weir avoids this by creating Mark as someone who is more likely to annoy others with his glib humor than incite hero worship.  As a reader, I enjoyed the gallows humor and sarcastic quips, but to others this may be off-putting.  While Nick Carter in Year Zero was decidedly more self centered than Mark Watney, both share the same devil may care attitude, and a tendency to channel their inner twelve year old when cracking jokes.

Year Zero’s tone is far more reminscent of Douglas Adams, but both novels intermingle a bit of fun within the seriousness, and each has more than a few laugh out loud moments.  Mark and Nick’s approach their respective situations creates a sense of of levity, offsetting what could otherwise turn into a festival of wallow and self pity.

Mark’s experiments with modifying the NASA Hab for long term use, show not just unique creativity, but also serve to demonstrate the extreme lengths to which a person is driven by the simple will to survive.  As a reader, I found myself quickly engrossed in the storyline, cheering for Mark with each success and feeling a genuine sense of disappointment or anxiety with each failure.

Weir’s attention to detail and his scientific accuracy is nearly impeccable.  Those looking for plausibility will be hard pressed to find fault in Weir’s research.  Those with a less technical mindset or without a fairly advanced level of scientific knowledge may find themselves bogged down by some of the details.  I found myself having to stop on more than one occasion to Google various aspects of Mark’s McGyver-like maneuvers, which was at times jarring due to how engrossed I had been in the book up to that point.

I would encourage the reader to stick with the book, however, as The Martian features a complex, fast paced plot that immediately draws in the reader, making them eager to follow along on Project Mark Watney Doesn’t Die.

 

Rating: 

Nov 11 2014

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple centers around Bernadette Fox and her family over the course of several months.

Once a renowned architect, Bernadette now spends most of her time sitting in an Air Stream trailer parked in their backyard.  Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, is a high level executive at Microsoft, and her daughter Bee has just graduated from eighth grade at Galer, a prestigious local prep school.

Told in the first person perspective, the book opens with Bee asking her parents for a trip to Antartica as a graduation present.  For Bernadette, who is already reclusive and borderline agoraphobic, the idea of such a trip becomes the catalyst for an emotional breakdown.

Soon she is outsourcing the majority of her daily tasks to India and becomes engaged in an all out war with several of the mothers at her daughter’s school, who she refers to as “gnats”.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? begins as a humorous and lighthearted tale.  Bernadette’s long and rambling emails to Manjula, the virtual personal assistant she has hired, give the reader hilarious insight into Bernadette’s inner workings.  Remarks that might otherwise seem mildly offensive come out of Bernadette with an unabashed matter of factness.  In the midst of the humor, however, Semple gives the reader tiny glimpses of an underlying darker storyline.

Bernadette’s marriage is in trouble.  Her husband Elgin takes the Microsoft bus to work every day so as to escape his wife an hour early.  Bernadette decries what she views as the Seattle chic while her husband thrives in the same environment.  Bee loves both her parents deeply but feels abandoned by her father due to his long working hours and is burdened by worry over her mother’s growing eccentricities.  Bernadette in turn has been worn down first by several miscarriages, then by worry over Bee’s childhood health issues, and now from the haunting of past failures.

Semple presents all these with humor and grace but does not fall into the trap of painting her characters without fault.  Bernadette thinks herself smarter than nearly everyone else and has come to the belief that all of life’s problems can be solved with money.  In the midst of this, Semple introduces a bevy of supporting characters such as Audrey, one of the Galer moms, Audrey’s son Kyle who is the school drug dealer, and Soo-Lin-Lee-Segal, Elgin’s assistant and possible lover.

Semple does a brilliant job of creating characters the reader is eager to hate but winds up feeling sympathetic towards.  Audrey is oblivious to her son’s extra curricular activities and is dealing with a crumbling marriage of her own.  Soo-Lin-Lee is a recent divorcee, newly single mother, and a charter member of Victims against Victimhood (VAV).

Often in novels, supporting characters fade too quickly into the background or fall into the trap of becoming cliched.  Semple, however, brings each of them to the foreground just often enough to be integral to the overall storyline but not so much as to interfere with the plot of the main characters.  In addition, Semple confronts the cliches head on and treats them with a humor that is almost surgical in its precision and delicacy.  Semple divides Where’d You Go, Bernadette? into seven parts.  Each part deals with a different aspect of the titular question, weaving it into a complex literal and metaphorical form.

Viewers of Mad About You or Arrested Development will already be familiar with Semple’s comedic style as she was a writer on both shows.  Readers who enjoyed Rob Reid’s Year Zero may also enjoy Where’d You Go, Bernadette?.  In both cases, the author draws heavily from significant personal experiences.  Reid drew from his career in the music industry, and as with Bernadette, Semple struggled with adapting in her move from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Each book shares the same sense of satire and the same poking fun at the “societal elite”.  In addition, Semple and Reid manage to avoid the bitter, angry tone that is so often infused into satire by injecting a healthy amount of self-deprecation.  Also the two novels combine a sizable chorus of characters into a single coherent storyline.

Year Zero though more of a sci-fi novel in the same vein as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, reminded me of Where’d You Go, Bernadette due to similarities in humor style and the mixing of darker undertones.

As with Nick Carter in Year Zero, Bernadette finds herself caught in a series of events that spiral beyond her control almost before she is even aware of them transpiring.  Also, both Nick and Bernadette find themselves in situations where they must play victim to those they have previously victimized.  Finally, Bernadette like Nick, discovers that the secret to finding herself might mean placing herself in the middle of her deepest fears and insecurities.

I found Where’d You Go, Bernadette? to be a quick and easy read.  The light-hearted tone in the beginning sets the mood and remains upbeat despite more intense plot developments.  Semple’s primary strength is characterization.  She does an excellent job of taking characters that are otherwise unlikeable and making them likeable.  One element that was of particular interest to me was that despite Semple’s talent for and background in creating witty believable dialogue, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is told from a first person narrative using emails, police reports, and other documentation.

Overall I found the characters fit into the storyline well and did not overly detract from the plot.  In the case of Kennedy (Bee’s best friend) and Kyle, however, it seemed that Semple built two characters and then lost track of what to do with them.  Kennedy, in particular, gave the impression of having a more significant role only to abruptly fade into the background.  Kyle, although important in terms of the impact his actions had on other characters, seemed to have no purpose other than to serve as filler in places where the plot began to slightly drag.  Finally, Semple’s ending was abrupt and did not fit well with the rest of the novel.

 

 

Sep 09 2014

Review: Books made into movies

With summer winding down and school starting back, I decided to take a look at popular novels that have been made into current movies. I chose The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

The Hundred Foot Journey title refers to the hundred foot distance that separates two restaurants and the people that both live and work there. Unlike the short time required for a  journey of a hundred feet, the book itself takes its time getting to the point of this plot.

I decided to review this book because I received a free pass to see the movie and loved it.  Based on the story of the movie and the portrayal of the characters, I was eager to read the book.  I looked forward to learning more about the story and discovering the elements that the movie left out.

As I began reading, however, my excitement quickly gave way to disappointment.  The Hundred Foot Journey is one of those rare cases where the movie proves to be better than the book.

Told in first person narrative from the perspective of the main character, Hassan, the first three chapters focus primarily on Hassan’s childhood in India and then very briefly on two years spent in London before moving into the main plot.

The attempt is to give the reader an understanding of Hassan and to set up the events which serve as the catalyst for the rest of the novel.  The result is a disjointed ramble that gives far too much attention to detail and minutia.

While the movie manages to capture the important elements of the events in Hassan’s life, the book goes into great detail on events that are never mentioned again.  I found this distracting as at first it seemed these events were significant, when in fact they were later determined to be unimportant or secondary to the primary plot.

One exception to this is the momentary focus on Hassan’s early romantic relationships.  It is shown that the sudden death of his mother early in the novel profoundly impacts his subsequent relationships with women and with other people in his life.  One example is when he and his mother spent a day together and dined in an upper scale French restaurant.  In this instance, Morais’ attention to detail works well in establishing the special closeness that Hassan feels towards his mother and gives the reader a strong feeling of sympathy towards Hassan when his mother dies a few pages later.

Reading is often an escape for me.  When I am having a bad day or am feeling otherwise pressured, reading calms me.  Trying to get through The Hundred Foot Journey left me feeling frustrated at trying to keep track of the details and understand their relevance to the overall storyline.


The Giver by Lois Lowry is a young adult novel set in an unspecified future.  Having decided that being different or unique leads to strife and war, society has for generations focused on creating its own form of utopia.  In this society called “The Community”, the Elders keep everything and everyone under tight control.  “Sameness” is the ideal, and uniqueness is deemed shameful.

Each December, The Community holds a ceremony advancing children to the next age. When a child reaches twelve, they are assigned their role or job, and the remainder of their education becomes focused on training them in that role.  In his ceremony, Jonas is assigned to the role Receiver of Memory.  He trains privately with the last Receiver, now labeled the Giver, receiving the Giver’s memories of the past.  Jonas is now exempt from many of the community rules such as sharing his dreams or avoiding rudeness and is forbidden from requesting any medication.  These changes allow him to experience true emotions such as love, attraction, and intense pain.  Jonas also finds that he is able to see colors whereas the other members of the community can see only monochrome.

As with The Hundred Foot Journey, I went to see The Giver in the theatre.  Whereas The Hundred Foot Journey did an excellent job of presenting the important elements of the book, The Giver took considerably more liberties.  In the movie, Jonas’ age is changed from twelve to sixteen, a love triangle is added, and the role of the Elders takes on a sinister overtone.  The book implies that The Community was developed by the Elders out of good intention, a belief that if everyone was the same there would be nothing to create conflict.  In the film, the focus of the Elders shifts primarily to the Chief Elder whose motives are less clear.

I enjoyed both the film adaptation and the book The Giver, but I felt the book spoke to me more. Where the film created scenes that appeared thrown in just for the sake of creating an action element, the book focused more on the subtleties and nuances of being unique in a society that reveres conformity.  In addition, the film made a few minor changes I did not understand such as the number of Jonas’ birth order.  In the book he is number nineteen in his birth year, and in the movie he is number fifty-six.  The only reason I could discern for this was an effort to create a more suspenseful scene.  One other element changed from the book to the movie was Jonas’ eye color.  In the book, Lowry places a special emphasis on the fact that Jonas, the Giver and a select few others have “funny eyes” (presumably blue though this this is never stated outright).  In the movie, eye color is changed to a special birthmark on the inside of the wrist.  To me, featuring the eye color rather than a subtle mark created a stronger point in that it is an instantly visible and distinct characteristic.

Although The Hundred Foot Journey and The Giver appear to have no similarities, there are common themes to be found.  In both novels the protaganist struggles with the conflict of societal expectations versus his personal growth.  In The Giver, Jonas struggles with trying to understand his experiences of deep emotion against the traditions of his society.  In The Hundred Foot Journey, Hassan struggles with understanding his own deep emotions in light of his mother’s death and father’s emotional shut down, while fighting against the traditions of his society.  In addition, both Jonas and Hassan experience long personal journeys that force them away from the comfort of their communities and their traditions.

I strongly urge those interested in seeing the film adaptation of The Giver to do so, but I would just as strongly encourage viewers to read the book first.  For those interested in The Hundred Foot Journey, I highly recommend going the film adaptation but would advise anyone considering it to skip the book.

Jul 29 2014

Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell centers around the lives of two teenagers in Omaha, Nebraska, during the mid-80’s.  Eleanor has just moved back in with her mother and abusive stepfather.  Forced to share a room with four younger siblings, Eleanor spends the majority of her time desperately trying to be invisible so that her stepfather won’t kick her out of the house again.

Eleanor finds herself forced to sit next to Park on the first day of school after being heckled and shunned by everyone else on the bus.  Eleanor is large, with bright red hair and clothes that can only be called “strange”.

For several weeks, Eleanor and Park don’t interact at all.  Park secretly thinks Eleanor is just weird, and Eleanor wonders how it is that the only Asian kid in school is simultaneously a misfit and part of the “in” crowd.   One day Park looks over and realizes that Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder.  After this, he starts giving her comics to borrow, until one day he comments on some song lyrics written on her book cover.  This serves as the needed ice breaker, and soon the two find themselves talking non-stop about music, Han Solo, and the sexist undertones of X-Men.

On the surface, the two begin a fun and lighthearted teen romance, but beneath the surface we find that Eleanor’s entire family lives at the whim of her drunken stepfather.  Eleanor can’t understand why her mother stays with him, but soon we start to see little glimpses here and there of how beaten down and worn out her mother has become.

In contrast, Park has a seemingly perfect home life.  His parents can hardly keep their hands off each other, and his mother’s success as a beautician accords Park a certain acceptability with the cool kids.

Park and his father are constantly at odds since his father doesn’t understand his son’s seeming inability to learn to drive a stick or his penchant for wearing eyeliner and therefore constantly berates Park’s masculinity.

Finally, their individual situations reach a climax and Eleanor and Park are forced to face the realities of trying to turn a teen romance into “forever”.

Eleanor and Park has been compared to John Green‘s The Fault in our Stars or Paper Towns.  I found, however, that it reminded me far more of The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LeBan.  As with Duncan in The Tragedy Paper, Eleanor is starting over in a new school late in her high school career.  In addition as with Duncan and his albinism, Eleanor’s red hair and large frame  set her apart.  Finally, both books are told through alternating perspectives and culminate in a sudden event that irrevocably changes the main characters’ lives.

While I enjoyed Eleanor and Park and found it to be a fun and easy read, I felt it lacked some of the elements that make a truly great novel.  Rowell depends largely on cliches and predictability and fails to explore elements that could add complexity and believability for her characters.  For example, Park’s mother is emphasized as being Korean, and Park struggles with what it means to him to be half-Korean, yet Park’s house seems devoid of anything resembling Korean culture.  The author also gives no indication that Park’s parents encountered any difficulties as an interracial couple who began their life together in 1960’s Nebraska.  Park claims that his previous lack of romantic success is due to a dearth of attractive male Asian examples, yet we discover his ex-girlfriend is still eager for his attention and the most popular girl in school has a crush on him.

In contrast, Rowell does an excellent job with Eleanor’s characterization.  From the first day on the bus when she is labeled as “Big Red”, the reader can relate to Eleanor’s situation.  Eleanor is portrayed as a smart kid who has all but completely shut herself off from everyone, due to the inability or unwillingness of the adults in her life to help.  Her mother is so overrun with trying to anticipate the demands of her husband and with raising the younger children that she sees Eleanor more as a problem than a daughter.  The school guidance counselor thinks everything can be fixed with a smile and a hug.  Her teachers are seemingly unaware or unconcerned.  As a result, Eleanor is sometimes sarcastic and caustic or shuts down when struggling to explain her family situation or the intensity of her own feelings towards Park.

Set in 1986, Eleanor and Park makes solid use of the time frame.  Situations that would be solved by today’s modern technology such as cell phones or MP3 players are integral elements to the plot.  When Park lends Eleanor his tape player, she worries about running down the batteries, noting that they are expensive.  Eleanor also comments several times that she does not have a phone at home, making it difficult for her to call Park or for anyone to call her.  Finally, the music that Rowell weaves into the plot was quintessential of the rise of the 70’s and 80’s punk culture.

Eleanor and Park is marketed for teens fourteen and up.  This is an appropriate starting age due to themes of abuse, bullying, and teen sex.

I found Eleanor and Park to be a quick and enjoyable read.  Rowell’s use of dialogue is her strongest point, but the over use of cliche’s and exaggerated physical descriptions read more like a beginning novel rather than the work of an established author.  A few of the characters were believable in their flaws and insecurities, while others seemed either caricaturish or too undeveloped for their transformation to be realistic.  As with The Tragedy Paper, the dual narrating voices added nicely to the storyline and kept the pace flowing well; however, I would have liked to have been given more insight into some of the lesser characters.

 

Rating: 

Jul 08 2014

Review: Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts

As adults, many of us know the detailed history of the American Revolution.  We’ve heard the tale of Paul Revere’s ride, of the Founding Fathers, and of Nathan Hale’s last words.  Not much, however, is told about the role of women in the fight for independence.  With this in mind, I decided to review Cokie Roberts’ book Founding Mothers.   Roberts is the daughter of two prominent former members of Congress and is a well-respected news anchor.  Two versions of her book were created: one for children and a more in-depth one for adults. I have addressed both in this review.

Each book opens with Deborah Reed, the wife of Benjamin Franklin.  In both versions, we discover that Deborah and Franklin met while they were still in their late teens, fell out of touch but reconnected years later.  In the expanded adult version, we discover that Franklin was sent away on business and quickly forgot about Deborah.  As a result, her mother married her off to another man who eventually disappeared in the West Indies.  Later, after Franklin and Reed reconnect, they are unable to legally marry due to the fact that her first husband’s death cannot be proven.  The relationship was well accepted however, so Deborah took the name Franklin and became recognized as his wife.

In the children’s version, we are told that Benjamin was appointed as Postmaster and required to travel extensively, leaving Deborah to run the Post Office in his stead.  Roberts expands on this in the adult version, and we find out that Franklin traveled to England for an extended period, setting up household with another woman while his wife ran a sundry shop and maintained the post office.  In addition, Deborah later kept the books for Benjamin’s print shop and invested in real estate, opening some of the first franchises in the country.

After traveling back and forth, Franklin returned to England promising to be back within seven months.  He did not return until after Deborah’s death more than ten years later.

Both of Roberts’ books give us glimpses into some of the lesser known women of the Revolution.  A brief quote from The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth Ellet tells of a Mrs. Pond who fed more than 100 Patriot soldiers the morning after the Battle of Lexington.

Other less famous women include Emily Geiger who carried a message through British territory for General Greene.  She was detained by British soldiers who called in a woman to search her.  During the delay, Emily could memorize the message and swallow the paper evidence.  Finding no justification in keeping her, the British freed her, and she rode on to deliver the message.

Margaret Corbin’s husband, John, was killed at Fort Washington, New York.  Afterwards, she took up his artillery position and was wounded three times.  Unable to work after the war, Corbin petitioned Congress for a retired soldier’s pension.  They agreed, making her the first woman in United States history to receive a military pension.  She was re-buried at West Point in 1926 and is one of two Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

One amusing mention in Roberts’ book is of Mary Lindley Murray.  After defeating the Patriots at Kips Bay in 1776, British General Howe and his soldiers stopped at Mary’s house for dinner.  Mary was quite generous with the wine and managed to distract Howe and his men long enough for the American soldiers to escape.

Another notable woman of the Revolution was Deborah Sampson.  In the children’s version of her book, Roberts’ tells us that Deborah made herself a suit of men’s clothing and joined the army as Robert Shurtleff.  After serving for more than three years and being wounded twice, Deborah eventually fell ill and was discovered by the doctor treating her.  She was then forced to leave the army and after the war had ended was granted a soldier’s retirement pay and recognized by Congress for her service.

In the adult version of this tale, Roberts fills in a few more details.  Deborah Sampson did indeed serve as Robert Shurtleff for more than three years.  Ironically, the men she served alongside nicknamed her “Molly” due to her inability to grow a beard, never realizing that “he” was indeed “she”.  The doctor who discovered her secret kept it hidden and sent her on a mission to deliver a letter to General Washington who immediately granted her an honorable discharge and enough money to get home.  Years later, after several petitions to Congress, she was granted a retirement pension of $76.80 per year and some land to live on.

Roberts delves into the histories and services of many other women of the Revolution. The Daughters of Liberty began a boycott of merchants that sold British goods and created “spinning bees” where they spun cloth to provide clothing for the Patriot army.  Eliza Lucas Pinckney at the age of 19 decided to grow indigo for the soldier’s uniforms and eventually created one of the largest agricultural businesses in South Carolina.

Roberts also tells us about the women of whom we all have heard, such as Martha Washington.  Martha is credited as being one of the first people to receive the smallpox inoculation, thus encouraging the soldiers by example.  The inoculation is now considered to have given the American army a major advantage over the British.  In addition, the reader is told about Abigail Adams who ran her husband’s farm while overseeing the education of their young children, wrote letters favoring the abolition of slavery, and spent much of her life advocating women’s equality.

Both books do an excellent job of keeping the subject matter fresh and interesting.  In the children’s version of Founding Mothers, Roberts manages to present the subject matter in a way that is easily accessible but is not dumbed-down.

In the adult version, she gives more detailed anecdotes of the women’s lives and the roles they played in shaping the early days of our country, but does not bore the reader with irrelevant trivia.

I enjoyed both books immensely and recommend them to readers interested in learning more about the women of the American Revolution.

 

Rating: 

Jun 17 2014

Review: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley opens in 1944 when Evelyn Roe is seventeen.  The U.S. involvement in World War II is at its peak, and Evelyn has recently graduated from high school when Evelyn’s great aunt Eva dies suddenly.  As all of Eva’s sons are off fighting, and Evelyn’s only brother is a bit too young, Evelyn is tasked with taking over the family farm.

One night during a bad rain storm, Evelyn discovers a figure buried in the mud.  Assuming that a wounded soldier has stumbled back from the war, Evelyn brings the figure into the house where she discovers that it is not exactly human but not entirely alien either.  Within a few days, Evelyn’s charge has transformed into a tall, red-headed woman: the near identical twin of Evelyn.  When a local boy is injured on Evelyn’s farm, she is forced to quickly invent a backstory for her new companion’s sudden appearance.  The unnamed figure suddenly becomes Addie, Evelyn’s long lost cousin and the daughter of her father’s estranged half-sister.

Addie’s strange vocalizations and shape-shifting elements draw Evelyn in, and they become sexually involved almost instantly.  After a couple of years, however, Evelyn finds herself longing for a husband and children.  Sensing this, Addie seduces a passing stranger and takes on his likeness.  Thus Adam Hope is born.  Adam’s vocalizations have a calm, soothing effect, and he is quickly accepted by Evelyn’s family and small town.  Several years go by and tragedy strikes, resulting not only in the emotional estrangement of Evelyn and Adam but also in the risk of Adam’s secret being revealed.  What follows is the tale of how they attempt to make their way back to Adam being perceived as human and to the former closeness in their relationship.

Most critics have compared The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope to The Time Travelers Wife due to the common element of an intense romance filled with unexplainable events and secrets kept from everyone else.  I found however, that it reminded me far more of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  Though Gaiman’s book does not posess the romantic storyline that The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope does, it does have the otherworldly aspect.  As with Gaiman’s novel, ordinary life is punctuated by elements that can not be easily explained.  In addition, both books are told from the perspective of a person who finds themselves in the minority by being a normal human.

Readers of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope may also be reminded of the 1984 film Starman.  While Riley’s book and the film both involve shape-shifting aliens, I found the differences from Riley’s novel to outweigh the similarities.  In Starman, it is made clear from the start that the storyline centers around an alien being, and he is in fact concious of his extra-terrestrial origins.  In The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, Addie/Adam have no knowledge of their origins, and the alien aspect becomes secondary to the main plot.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is an adult novel.  The descriptions of alien/human sex, while not as strange as the reader might imagine, are detailed.  In addition, the novel does not shy away from loss, and character death is dealt with in a very frank and realistic manner.

The opening historical setting of the book was in my mind an excellent choice by Riley.  Too much earlier in history, and the appearance of a shape shifter would have fallen prey to superstition and hostility.  Too much later in history, and the author would have been forced to deal with the complications of a society that is dependent on a paper or electronic trail.  In choosing a mid-World War II setting, Riley has picked just the right middle ground.  Developments of the bomb and the rumors of German and Japanese advanced technology create a bit of believable leeway for an alien visitor.  In addition, the element of the war created an environment where one could easily pass off the sudden appearance of new person as a returning soldier or a long lost relative.

Riley has created relatable characters that the reader will be able to easily recognize.  The depictions of a small town in which the residents are suspect of everyone outside – and are not completely sure of those inside – are spot on.  The reactions of the residents when confronted with evidence that Adam is different are precisely the attitudes one would expect to find in a small town.  The polite but obvious distancing, the thinly veiled derision, and the secret gossiping are all written in such a way that it is clear Riley has drawn from personal experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope and found that the book was not at all what I expected.  At first glance, I was uncertain and admittedly skeptical.  A historical, science-fiction romance sounded far too absurd for the author to pull of in a believable manner; however, Riley manages to achieve exactly that.  My primary criticism of the book is that the plot was a little slow in developing.  It is clear once the book is finished that the early plot development is necessary to establish the foundation, but I did find myself wishing the pace would pick up a little.  On the other hand, I did read this book in nearly one setting.  I would encourage the reader to stick with the first several chapters as I found that, just as I was at the point where I was ready to give up, the pace picked up dramatically and from that point was a quick read.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope seems an unlikely candidate for a book that will stick with you long after the cover is closed, but I found myself repeatedly thinking about the characters and their choices.  The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is Rhonda Riley’s first novel, and I look forward to reading more of her works in the future.

 

 

 

 

Mar 25 2014

Review: Books for Beginning Readers

Children’s books are an often overlooked genre.  There are so many on the market that it can be a struggle to know where to begin with your beginning reader.  With that in mind, here are six new children’s books geared towards pre-schoolers or other young children.

Love Monster is a clever little tale written by Rachel Bright about a “slightly hairy and a bit googly eyed” monster who lives in a town called Cutesville.  Cutesville is, as the name suggests, a town populated by cute and fluffy residents such as kittens, puppies and bunnies.  Unfortunately, there’s no one in Cutesville to love the monster, so he decides to go out into the “big wide world” in search of love.  The book follows his adventures as he looks all around for someone to love him just as he is.

Love Monster is a great way to teach kids that it’s okay to be different and that we shouldn’t judge based on looks because even a “slightly hairy and a bit googly eyed” monster deserves love.  Although written to be silly, Love Monster manages to find a nice balance of conveying a strong moral message while not falling into the ridiculous.  In addition, the storyline is interesting enough that parents will not mind reading it over and over.

 

Rating: 


How to Babysit A Grandpa by Jean Reagan is a fun story about a little boy who babysits his grandfather one day while his parents are out.  Written in a how-to style, the book lists a variety of things kids can do with their grandparents while babysitting them for a day.  Some of these activities include giving him snacks such as ice cream topped with cookies, or cookies topped with ice cream (depending on your preference).  Other suggestions consist of taking him for a walk to look for lizards or to teach him the importance of jumping into puddles.

How to Babysit A Grandpa provides an excellent jumping off point for parents whose kids might be apprehensive about having a babysitter.  Told from the perspective of the child, the book immediately reassures the reader that “Mom and Dad always come back.” In addition, it gives many ideas for the child to use to have fun with their babysitter or grandparent.

How to Babysit a Grandpa goes a little overboard on the cute and might be a little juvenile for the 5 – 8 year old age range to which it is marketed, but might also be on the lengthy side for kids younger than 5 years old.

 

Rating: 


Zombie In Love by Kelly DiPucchio tells about a zombie named Mortimer who is looking for a girlfriend.  Mortimer tries a number of different tactics to find love but is overwhelmingly unsuccessful.  He simply cannot find “the ghoul of his dreams.”  Mortimer tries several different tactics in his quest for love.  He tries giving one girl a diamond ring.  The next, he gives a heart.  He even tries to go to the gym, but unfortunately his arm keeps falling off.  Eventually, Mortimer decides to place an ad in the paper in the hopes that someone will meet him at the Sweethearts ball.

Targeted toward children aged 4 – 8, Zombie In Love is an entertaining read that will quickly become a regular in the bedtime reading rotation.  Kids who are in that “love of all things gross” stage will enjoy the zombie aspect, and the subtle visuals such as the diamond still being attached to a finger or an actual beating heart being given as a gift will keep parents entertained as they read this story to their child repeatedly.

 

Rating: 


Dinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman sets out to tell the true story of how dinosaurs became extinct.  It turns out that cavemen realized they needed clothing and discovered the wonders of underpants.  The fiercest of all dinosaurs, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, sees the new underpants and immediately wants them.  What follows is both a literal and metaphorical tug of war between dinosaurs and cavemen over underwear.  Soon the Triceratops is wearing them on every horn, and the Stegosaurus discovers he is allergic to wooly mammoth underpants.  In addition, TRex keeps tripping on them, and Diploducus’ pinch uncomfortably.

Written entirely in rhyme, Dinosaurs Love Underpants is written for children ages 4 – 7.  Though not intended as such, Dinosaurs Love Underpants could be used as a tool for parents in toilet training.  Younger children who see how much the dinosaurs love underpants might be inspired to want to wear them as well.  Older kids will enjoy the brilliant and amusing illustrations but may otherwise find the storyline on the ridiculous side.  While a cute read, the ending was too sudden, and the rhyming theme lost it’s flow midway through the story.

 

Rating: 


Mousetronaut and Mousetronaut Goes to Mars are two educational books by Mark Kelly.  Based partially on a true story, these books tell about a mouse named Meteor who travels on the Space Shuttle and participates in events such as the Mars Rover landing.  Meteor is thought too small by the other mice to be picked for the Space Shuttle mission.  Determined to prove them wrong, Meteor works hard to prove that size isn’t always what’s important.

Written for children aged 4 – 8, both books present an opportunity for parents to teach their kids about NASA, the space program, and what it’s like to travel on the Space Shuttle.  Young children who are at the stage of dreaming of being an astronaut will enjoy following Meteor’s adventures.  Slightly older children may be bored and find the story over-simplified.  Parents will enjoy the teaching opportunities presented, but it is unlikely either book will become part of the nightly bedtime routine.

 

Rating: 

Jan 21 2014

Review: Books for your book club

Book clubs have increased considerably in popularity over the last few years.  Oprah’s picks acted as a catalyst, and now nearly every book store has a section devoted to them.  With that in mind, I picked three books with a strong female lead that your book club may have overlooked.

In the Land of Invisible Woman is the memoir of Qanta Ahmed, a Western-trained Muslim doctor.  When her visa to remain in the United States is unexpectedly denied, Ahmed impulsively accepts a position at a hospital in Saudi Arabia.  A self-described secular Muslim, Ahmed sees this offer as an opportunity to delve deeper into her heritage and to learn more about the Muslim faith.

Ahmed admits that she is naive regarding the complications of living in the Saudi Kingdom. Though aware of the strict Sharia law, she finds that her western medical training left her unprepared for situations such as treating a woman who is comatose but must remain veiled or trying to accurately assess a woman’s heart rate through her abaya.  Angry at what she sees as female oppression, she begins to see ways in which women have learned to turn their oppression into their own form of self expression, displaying their beauty through colorful fabrics and intricately embroidered patterns.  In addition, the women take great care to ensure their makeup is perfect beneath their veiled faces.  They are determined to allow themselves to feel beautiful for their own sake even if no man beyond their husbands will see the results.

As a reader, I found myself fascinated by this autobiography.  Ahmed’s descriptions of the people she met left me feeling as if I were meeting them alongside her.  Her experiences of rediscovering her Muslim faith through a pilgrimage to Mecca reminded me of accounts of Jewish and Christian journeys to Israel.

Although the narrative was choppy in places and several events which seemed important were never elaborated on, I did thoroughly enjoy In the Land of Invisible Women and seeing Ahmed’s experiences through her eyes.

Rating: 


The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Sutterfield follows the paths of Vida Winter, a famous but reclusive novelist, and Margaret Lea, a spinster and amateur biographer who has devoted her life to her father and his book shop.

Winter has given only a handful of interviews in her career, all of them full of self-admitted lies or fanciful stories.  Lea has grown up working in her father’s shop, experiencing very little of life outside of books.  One day when she is a child of ten years, she discovers that she had been born as a conjoined twin and that her sister had died.  This discovery separates her even further from her already distant mother and explains the sense of incompletion and longing Lea has always felt.

Years later, a grown Lea receives a letter from Winter requesting Lea’s services as a biographer.  While mulling over this decision, Lea decides to read one of Winter’s books called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation only to discover that the thirteenth tale is missing.  Lea quickly agrees to be Winter’s biographer in hopes of solving the mystery of the missing tale.  Along the way, Lea begins to uncover not only the secrets of Ms. Winter’s past but also of her own.

Written in the same vein as classic gothic literature, fans of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters will very much enjoy The Thirteenth Tale.  I found myself making frequent and favorable comparisons to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.  Winter allows no questions but requires Lea to simply listen, and so the story unfolds.  With each revelation, I found myself anxious to know what came next, and in the end I felt I knew each character as intimately as if they had been characters in my own life.

I have always been a fan of the gothic literature genre, and I felt that that Sutterfield did an excellent job of writing in this style.  In addition, the characters felt like living breathing people. I could imagine Lea’s parents and visualize the shop she worked in.  Finally, the storyline moved at a well balanced pace that was just fast enough to keep the reader intrigued but not so much that the resolution was given away before the end.

Rating: 


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told through a series of short stories.  Set in the small town of Crosby, Maine, each story features a different character whose lives are gradually interwoven.  Throughout the novel, the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, remains a central figure who is both revered and reviled.

On the surface, Olive appears overbearing and even a bit uncaring.  Her relationship with her husband has gradually become strained as they navigate the waters of realizing the person you married is not the person they have become.  Henry remains a steadfast churchgoer while Olive has become an unapologetic atheist.  Both enter into emotional affairs and struggle with honoring the committment they once made.  Although she smothers her son Christopher and continually pits him against his father, Olive has little time for what she perceives as nonsense.  The result is a woman who speaks her mind when she shouldn’t and doesn’t speak up when perhaps she should.

While each story is not specifically about Olive, she does appear in each of them.  As we learn each character’s story, we also learn more about the town and Olive’s impact on the people within.  To some she is little more than a peripheral character, while to others she looms almost larger than life.

Readers who enjoy works by authors such as Alice Munro or Joan Sibler will find similarities in Olive Kitteridge.  In addition, Strout’s depictions of small town life reminded me of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules.  

The depictions of living in a small northeastern town reminded me of my own experiences growing up in a small town, and of stories my mother would tell of her childhood in Upstate New York.  Strout’s characters are so real that the reader will be certain they’ve met some of them before.  While I enjoyed the overall tone and storyline of the book, a couple of the stories felt thrown in for the sake of filling space.  It is telling of Strout’s characterization that these stories are the ones in which Olive is a mere mention rather than a pivotal figure.

Rating: 

Oct 29 2013

Review: Classic Halloween Stories

In the last decade, there have been countless vampire, zombie and similarly themed books.  A television series of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow began airing recently on FOX, NBC has commissioned a modern retelling of Dracula, and the BBC did it’s own interpretation of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2007).  Submitted for your consideration are recommendations of four horror literature classics in honor of Halloween.

In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein, never having fully recovered from the death of his mother, becomes convinced he can create an immortal being.  Modern film adaptations tend to focus their attentions on the monster, creating a horror tale, rather than the original focus of caution against the misuse of science.  I recommend reading both the original 1818 version and Shelley’s 1831 revision.  The 1818 version has a more autobiographical slant, hinting more at Shelley’s feelings of competition with her stepmother, her guilt over her mother’s death in childbirth, and her own feelings of ambivalence towards her children.  The 1831 revision takes a more conservative approach, making Victor more a victim of fate and circumstance than someone suffering the consequences of poor choices.  The 1831 revision also puts Elizabeth (Victor’s wife) in a more subservient role rather than as an equal.


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving is another classic many of us have grown up with.  Modern retellings embellish the character of Ichabod Crane and make the Headless Horseman into an evil, ethereal creature.  In reality, Sleepy Hollow was likely derived from German folklore about “The Wild Huntsman”, whose victims were full of arrogance and held little moral value.  In Irving’s rendition, Crane is in competition with Abraham Van Brunt for the hand of Katrina, the only child of a wealthy local farmer.  Crane is a scheming outsider who cares only for Katrina’s inheritance, whereas Van Brunt is well known within the town as someone of strong moral character.

Many themes have been argued for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but some scholars agree that having been forced into bankruptcy after the War of 1812, Irving was disillusioned with the idea of America as the land of opportunity and instead saw Europe as a place superior in culture and history.


Dracula by Bram Stoker has been the primary source for all things vampire over the last century.  The idea of a vampire-like creature has existed in stories for centuries.  From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to True Blood to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the vampire myth is seen throughout popular culture.  While Transylvania seems more than a bit removed from Sunnydale or Bon Temps, all of these retellings have drawn some inspiration from Dracula.

Many adaptations such as the two Dracula films from the 1970’s or Dracula the Undead by Darce Stoker (Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew) stick closely to the original novel.  Others take a less conventional turn such as The Batman vs. Dracula or Sherlock Holmes and Count DraculaWhile Dracula was originally published as a horror novel, no one seems able to agree on one central theme with suggestions ranging from subtle homoeroticism to the urgent need for Christian salvation.


No discussion of classic horror literature would be complete without Edgar Allen Poe – the author of many poems and short stories such as “The Raven” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” that continue to haunt readers today

As with many of Poe’s writings, both of these works deal with themes of death and loss.  In “The Raven”, the narrator dwells on the recent loss of his love and finds himself sinking into hopelessness and despair as he engages in a one-sided conversation with the Raven.  Through this discussion, the narrator sinks into hopelessness and despair. The bird’s incessant “Nevermore” eventually convinces him that his soul is damned and that he will never see his lost love again in the afterlife.

In “The Pit and the Pendulum”, the narrator finds himself locked in a small cell where he nearly falls into a pit.  He then loses consciousness and when he regains it, finds himself strapped to a board with a pendulum slowly lowering, ready to slice him in two.  Thanks to the gnawings of some clever rats, he is saved, but then the walls start closing in.  Eventually, he has no choice but to jump into the pit.  Each of these incidents demonstrates the psychological impact that terror has on a person, a theme that is recurrent throughout Poe’s work.

The death of Poe’s wife at the age of nineteen has frequently been suggested as a driving force behind his continual themes of loss, dying and terror.  In addition, Poe was a contemporary of and was well acquainted with both Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. Gothic literature was a significant trend at that time, so this undoubtedly influenced each author’s writings.

Poe and many of his works have permeated pop culture, and Poe himself is a frequent figure in movies, television and books.  In an episode of The Simpson’s, “The Raven” was adapted with Marge playing the role of Lenore and Bart as the narrator.  As with Dracula, Poe also teamed up with Batman to solve a series of murders in Batman: Nevermore and “The Telltale Heart” and “The Raven” have also been adapted to film.  “The Pit and the Pendulum” has been adapted to film several times, and John Cusack starred in a 2012 film entitled The Raven, which centers around the last days of Poe’s life.

 

Oct 08 2013

Review: Star Wars books for kids by Jeffrey Brown

The announcement last year that Disney had acquired the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas and the subsequent announcement that they would be releasing at least three more Star Wars movies, has sent the sci-fi and fantasy world into a frenzy.  This has created a surge in books that are outside the normal reference books and fictionalized takes.

Three of those books are by New York Times bestselling author Jeffrey Brown.  The first, Darth Vader and Son is an amusing approach told in single panel illustrations on the premise “What if Darth Vader found himself a single parent to his four-year old son, Luke?”  The result is a hilarious depiction of Lord Vader dealing with a son who won’t eat his vegetables, put away his toys, or go to bed on time, intermixed with quotes from the movies that any fan will recognize.

The book also depicts Vader trying to tackle some of the tougher childhood questions such as “Where do babies come from?” and “Dad, why is it called a Death Star?”  In special homage to the hardcore fan-base, Brown also pokes fun at the Han/Greedo “who shot first?” debate.

While anyone who has ever been around children will be able to relate to the scenarios portrayed, parents will especially appreciate this book and find themselves smiling in sympathy.

Darth Vader and Son is aimed at Star Wars fans and other geeks, but anyone from reading age up to adults will find it enjoyable.  In addition, this book is a great way for parents to give their reading age children who have seen the movies an additional introduction to the Star Wars universe.

 

Rating: 


The second book in Brown’s series is Vader’s Little Princess.  Following the same premise of Darth Vader as a single father, this companion book tracks Leia from a young girl into the teenage years.

In early panels, Vader deals with incidents such as wearing a bright orange cozy on his head, simply to please his daughter, and being reduced to putty by a simple hug while trying to scold an Admiral.  In true twin fashion, Luke and Leia are depicted teaming up against Vader and getting into mischief such as hiding his keys and crashing Luke’s X-Wing into the Degobah swamp.

As Leia grows into young womanhood, Vader finds himself at a loss as to how to deal with the changes in his daughter.  Suddenly, she’s hogging the bathroom and asking her father to park the AT-AT around the corner when dropping her off at school. The perils of teenage driving are touched on when Vader is teaching Leia how to drive his Tie Fighter, and career day turns awkward when Princess Leia starts asking questions about what her father does for a living.

Finally, in a brilliant homage to The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is introduced as an on again-off again love interest.  Brown takes scenes from the original film and turns them into fun moments any man with daughters will recognize.

As with Darth Vader and Son, Vader’s Little Princess is intended for the Star Wars devotee, but parents, especially those with teen girls, will relate to the scenes within.  Though amusing and fun, a few of the panels felt as if they were “reaching” to create the joke, and I felt it paled slightly in comparison to it’s companion volume, Darth Vader and Son.

Vader’s Little Princess is appropriate for all ages, and scenes regarding dating and skimpy clothing are handled in such a way that even parents of young children should feel comfortable sharing this book.

 

Rating: 


Brown’s third book, Jedi Academy, steers away from Darth Vader and delves into the story of Roan Novachez.  Set approximately 200 years before the events of Return of the Jedi, Roan is a young boy on the planet Tatooine who thinks his life is over when he is rejected by Pilot Academy Middle School.  Convinced that he is doomed to attending Tatooine Agriculture Academy, Roan is shocked when he receives an acceptance letter from Jedi Academy.  Here, Roan meets Master Yoda and other Academy instructors including Librarian Lackbar, T-3P0, and RW-22.

Readers of Jedi Academy will notice similarities in style and perspective to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  As with Greg in Wimpy Kid, Jedi Academy’s Roan recounts his struggles as the new kid at school.  The Jedi Academy normally does not accept older children, and this adds to Roan’s feelings of awkwardness and of being an outsider.

Jedi Academy is appropriate for readers aged 7 to 12, though as with his other books, Brown creates a story that adult readers will be able to enjoy as well.  Star Wars fans will enjoy the subtle references to the movies, such as Roan’s least favorite teacher bearing a marked resemblance to Darth Maul and Yoda’s urging of “Do or do not, there is no try.”

Jedi Academy is an enjoyable and amusing read, although the ending felt a bit rushed.  In addition, the handwriting font was at times difficult to read and detracted from the overall story.

Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess would both make wonderful additions to the collection of any Star Wars fan young or old.

While most adults will not be as interested in Jedi Academy, it would be an excellent gift for younger or middle school aged children.

 

Rating: 

Follow Me!

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: