The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer PrinceI meant to read this book back when it came out, but somehow I just never got around to it. First there were other books, then there was a mild internet controversy over how well the race/ethnicity portion of the book came off, then there were other books again. But this month has been a really weird month of reading for me and I needed a book that was fun, interesting, and, most importantly, short, and this fit the bill.

In the world of The Summer Prince, bad things have happened to the Earth and the people who have survived them have largely moved to the Equatorial regions where there are seasons instead of the perpetual winter you find everywhere else. At the same time, humans have been developing gene therapies or something that keeps them living much longer, to where 250 years old is the new 90.

This story takes place in Palmares Tres, a big shiny glass building of a city in Brazil, run by “Aunties” and a queen who has ruled for decades. In this matriarchal society, kings are elected every five years to rule for one year, doing really not much ruling but instead preparing to sacrifice themselves at the end of the year to choose the new queen. In this particular election year, an 18-year-old called Enki is elected, to the delight of our hero, June, but it becomes quickly obvious that he is not intending to rule quietly. Instead, June and Enki take art to the streets to protest pretty much all the things that make Palmares Tres the city that June loves.

So, it definitely hits that “interesting” mark dead on. I really liked the worldbuilding in this story, from the physical style of the city to its struggles with age, class, race, technology, isolationism… it’s really cool. I don’t remember that mild internet controversy well enough to really discuss it, but I thought Johnson did a good job with all of the prejudices that mix in this novel.

It also hit the “fun” mark pretty well, as the beginning of the book is filled with June’s graffiti art escapades and the impropriety of Enki as summer king. But eventually things turn serious, and the implications of June’s actions and Enki’s shenanigans become dangerous, and it’s still pretty cool but it loses a lot of the fun. There are long passages of lecture on morality and some anvil-subtle scenes that drive home those struggles I mentioned above.

Luckily it was a short book, so even though I kind of wanted to set it aside when it got serious I was almost done and I saw it through. I’m glad I did finish it, even if the ending was terribly predictable, and overall I did enjoy my time with it. If you’re in my same reading slump boat, though, don’t mistake this for the brain candy I thought it was!

Recommendation: For lovers of quasi-dystopian futures and near-future worldbuilding.

Rating: 6/10

Run, by Ann Patchett

RunI’ve had Ann Patchett on my list of authors to get around to for some time now, so I’m very glad my book club chose this book and gave me that push to actually do so. But now I think I have to put her on my list of authors to give another shot, because this book? Didn’t really do it for me.

It’s a weird book to try to talk about (note to book clubs: does not make a great meeting), because while I read it eagerly over the course of four hours or so, I managed to come away with no strong feelings about it.

The plot is… weird. It centers on this wealthy political family in Boston with a dad and three sons, two of whom are adopted and black in an otherwise very white family. The dad dotes on the adopted sons; the biological son is kind of a screwup. Then the dad and the two adopted sons go to a Jesse Jackson event and afterward one of the sons is very nearly killed by a car except that he gets pushed out of the way at the last moment… by his biological mother.

Now, that sounds really cool, I think, but the book does not do the cool things with it that I would have wanted. The mother stays mostly unconscious in the hospital for the duration of the book, so we don’t get terribly much from her except for a strange interlude where she talks to her dead best friend. Instead we focus on the mother’s daughter, who knows that the brothers are her brothers and has apparently been keeping an eye on them with her mother all her life and is now being taken care of by this family that apparently didn’t have enough issues already.

The book does some interesting things. It opens with this fantastic story about a statue that I probably could have read an entire novel about. I can see it doing cool things with repetition and layered meanings. It talks about race, class, family dynamics, how our choices affect other people, all that good stuff. But for all the talking it does, I’m not sure what it’s trying to tell me.

In our book club meeting, my friend who picked the book mentioned that this book reads a lot like a fairy tale, with allegories and magical realism and things that just don’t make sense if you’re trying to read this as a straightforward novel. Unfortunately, the allegories of the book are largely political, calling to mind to my friends the Kennedys and other politicians and their various scandals, but my understanding of these references ended at knowing that Ted Kennedy was a person, so.

So onto the list of authors to try again Patchett goes. Maybe if I can read her awesome writing with some references that I understand, I’ll do a lot better!

Recommendation: For people who know politics, probably, and people interested in some weirdly twisty plot lines.

Rating: 6/10

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body ProblemI feel almost embarrassed to have waited over six weeks to talk about this book, but, see, here’s the thing: this book is bonkers. And not just bonkers like I usually mean it, where it’s weird and strange and requires a lot of brain power to make it through, although all of those are certainly true. But bonkers like, there was so much going on and the narrative was so all over the place that my brain just went ahead and jettisoned all of my memories of it. I listened to it for 14 hours with my husband on our pilgrimage to Cleveland and honestly the thing I remember most clearly is the narrator saying “REEEEEHYYYYYYYDRAAAAATE” like some kind of health-conscious Dalek.

Obviously, there’s more. The book starts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with the government decrying heretical things like physics. There’s a looooooong bit with a physicist being persecuted for SCIENCE and lots of boring talky talk, and I was like, “I swear to god this book is supposed to be about aliens. If I had data signal right now I’d double check that.”

Then there’s more stuff with the physicist’s daughter getting caught up in more anti-Chinese things and getting sent off to do, um, stuff, I have no memory of any of this, and then there’s a dude in the near-future-day taking pictures with weird ghostly time stamps that no one else can see or take a picture of and cue me being like YES ALIENS but no, no aliens yet, just super weird science and shadowy government organizations and a weird video game with dehydrating people and chaotic eras and winter is coming.

When we finally get to the aliens, this does not solve the problem of the book making only 5 percent sense. The aliens are weirdos, the people who like the aliens are weirdos, the people who hate the aliens are weirdos, there are two mysterious protons that have a backstory that is highly amusing if you are a complete nerd (our amusement level: fairly), and I still have no idea what any of that was about.

So, like, you know The Martian? You know how it’s got all that awesome science that is super cool because it’s explained in pirate ninjas and whatnot? Okay, take that, but instead of space engineering this has theoretical physics and instead of pirate ninjas this has no useful explanations whatsoever. And you can’t just kind of skim over the science parts, as you can with The Martian, because the whole dang book is science parts.

But the thing of it is, the author and narrator do a great job of telling this story. I may not remember the actual story, but I do remember that I had more than one book downloaded and ready to listen to and Scott and I chose to keep listening to this one. It’s weird and crazy and makes no sense when you’ve had six weeks to forget all of it, but in the moment it’s kind of awesome and fascinating, if you’re into that theoretical physics thing.

There’s two more books in this series, and the second one just came out, and it’s definitely going on my list of road-trip audiobooks because I need to know what’s up with these aliens but I will never find out if I don’t have Scott around to commiserate with when the book inevitably goes completely off the rails. I’ll try to remember that one better, but no guarantees!

Recommendation: For science nerds and wannabe science nerds ONLY. Do not attempt this book without at least a passing interest in theoretical physics.

Rating: 6/10

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraI had picked this book up to read because, well, elephants, but then I wavered on reading it because it seemed like it might be a cozy mystery, but then I read a very complicated book that I will talk about here soon and it broke my brain and I was like, hey, I like elephants.

Do you like elephants? Do you like quasi-cozy mysteries? Do you like people making terrible life decisions that end up having no consequences? This is totally the book for you.

I like the first one, obviously, and am sometimes down with the second, so for the most part this was a pretty fun book. We meet the titular Inspector Chopra on his last day with the Mumbai police, from which he is forced to retire after a heart attack. He is all set to at least try to enjoy retirement, but a woman and her dead son — and the police force’s reticence to look into the latter — catch his attention and he decides to pretend to be an inspector for just a bit longer. Like, literally pretend to be an officer. Totally not kosher. (Is there a Hindu version of kosher?)

Meanwhile, Chopra’s uncle has left him a baby elephant, as one does, and while Chopra is hunting down leads and information and potential killers he also is trying to figure out what elephants eat and why this one is so sad and where he can send it because the homeowner’s association lady is totally shitting a brick over the elephant in the apartment complex.

Also meanwhile, Chopra’s wife is not terribly pleased with the fact that she’s seeing her husband even less after his retirement, and she’s sure he’s up to no good with some hot young ladies, and Chopra is definitely keeping a secret buuuuut it’s probably not hot young ladies. Or is it?

So, it’s pretty cute. I love the elephant, of course, and his propensity for chocolate bars, and how Chopra is totally down with taking the elephant around town with him as he investigates because that’s totally not conspicuous at all. And the mystery itself is pretty decent, with the requisite number of twists and turns to keep things interesting.

But as you may have guessed, I really dislike thing number three above, and there’s a lot of that in this book. Chopra doesn’t want to go to the actual employed cops for help with his case because they’re disinterested and also because he doesn’t want to ruin his reputation by going crazy upon retirement, which, fine. And then when things start getting legitimately dangerous, Chopra is like, I should totally get help but I’m just not gonna. Which, not fine. But don’t worry, reader, Chopra’s innate luck and his new elephant friend are apparently all he needs to escape regular danger and also certain death. Ugh.

Escaping death is important, though, as this is apparently the first in a whole series of adorable elephant mysteries, which I kind of still almost want to read because elephants, guys. Who doesn’t want a crime-fighting, butt-kicking elephant sidekick? I know I do. Perhaps things will calm down for Chopra in these future installments? I can only hope!

Recommendation: For readers with easily suspended disbelief and also elephant lovers because adorable!

Rating: 6/10

Armada, by Ernest Cline

ArmadaNote: If you are super excited about reading this book, go read it and then come back here. It’s a very spoilable book and I don’t want to ruin your adventure!

So. A couple years back the husband and I listened to Ready Player One on a road trip and liked it quite a bit, and then earlier this year my book club read it and the discussion got me excited about it all over again. So when I had a chance to read Armada, I jumped right on it, and it became my featured reading for a recent plane journey. Tellingly, although I didn’t finish the book on the trip out, I was perfectly content to wait until the return flight to crack it open and finish it.

Armada opens with our main character, Zack Lightman, seeing something that he couldn’t be seeing: a giant warship from his favorite video game zooming around outside his school. Zack thinks he might be going crazy like his father was before he died, his father being convinced that the government was using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion. But of course, just as Zack convinces himself that everything will be fine if he just lays off the video games for a while, it turns out that, well, the government has been using video games to train up nerdy citizens into soldiers ready to fight an alien invasion, and that Zack’s prowess at those games is getting him recruited into the military to fight an invasion starting in, oh, hours.

And that’s a peachy keen plot, as plots go, and I certainly found myself eager to get to the next page and find out what would happen next. But the style and characters? Oof, I just could not even.

The biggest problem that I had with the book is that it knows that it’s ripping off The Last Starfighter and every other movie or book with the same plot, and it tells you that it knows that it’s ripping them off, and so you think it’s going to neatly subvert the tropes and failings of those stories but it just… doesn’t. Everything that you think is going to happen in this book happens, and any time a character is like, “This thing that is happening is very predictable” you can rest assured that it will remain so. Which, okay, that’s unpredictable in and of itself, so points to you, Ernie Cline, but goodness it is boring.

Also boring are the characters, pulled directly from stock and dropped in this novel. Nerdy video gamer protagonist? Check. Nerdy video gamer best friends? Check. Nerdy video-game-store owner who hates his customers? Check. Loving single mother? Check. Uber-nerd computer hacker? Check. Mission-focused general? Check. The one unpredictable thing in the whole book is that the author actually respects his female characters, all two of them, giving them the same agency he gives the dudes (admittedly, not much) and leaving out any potential damsel-in-distress scenes.

So, I mean, I liked it. I enjoyed the reading experience and I liked the suspense of wondering how things would play out. But I hated the way it actually did play out, and if throwing my Kindle across an airplane wasn’t such a terrible idea in so many ways, it might have actually happened. Part of me wants to go back and try it again (it’s not a terribly long book) and see how I so badly managed to miss whatever the point of the book was, but the rest of me is like, no, life is too short, so I’m going to need those of you who have read and loved and/or gotten this book to tell me where I went wrong!

Recommendation: For fans of video games, Ernie Cline, and books that are only plot.

Rating: 6/10

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenThis book and I have a bit of a history together. I first heard about it before it came out, when John Green (a college friend of Riggs) was spreading massive love for the book around the internets. Then it came out, and there was tons more love all over the place, but I was busy doing who knows what and didn’t get around to reading it. Then I was at my favorite beach book store maybe a year ago, and I was like, I want to buy books from you, what should I buy. This book ended up coming home with me but remained unread until my book club picked it to read. (Technically, my copy is still unread as I started reading the book on my Kindle and never switched over.)

And so maybe it’s the fact that I’ve known about this book and its fans for so long, that perhaps I had built up the awesome in my head too far, that I really didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to, for sure. It’s a book with a precocious kid who essentially finds out that magic is real, and also there’s bad guys and time travel, and really this book seems like a slam dunk. But it just… wasn’t.

If you also haven’t managed to read this book, the plot is thus: precocious kid has a grandfather who told him wild stories about his childhood that turned out to be pretty obviously made up when kid became teen. Grandfather becomes senile, thinks monsters are after him, dies horribly at the hands of what teen sees as, in fact, monsters, kid goes into therapy, therapist recommends a visit to the island grandfather told teen to visit with his last words, teen goes, discovers hidden time pocket where grandfather’s stories are true and grandfather’s childhood friends are still living as teens themselves, bad guys discover same pocket, teen and very old teens work together to defeat the bad guys.

This seems great! In fact, like Scarlett Undercover, my teen self would probably have devoured this book in minutes and loved it.

But cranky adult me sees what Riggs is doing and wishes he had done it better. The driving force behind this book is a set of pictures that Riggs collected that show mostly kids doing weird things — floating, lifting boulders, looking much older than they are, etc. These pictures became the titular peculiar children, and the pictures are actually printed in the book, which is cool but also annoying because you know every time a picture is coming because Riggs says something like, “I remember this girl, there was that picture where she was holding a chicken and there’s a long drawn-out explanation why she had a chicken so let me tell you what that is,” and I just don’t care. I don’t care why this girl is holding a chicken, I care about the fact that chicken girl and everyone else is in a time loop and also in trouble! This plot is interesting, let’s talk more about it!

The writing is also kind of confusing, with conflicting information given about the kids’ powers and the rules of the time loop and whatever, and everyone that’s not the main kid and his crush object get short shrift on character development. The dad is especially a letdown, since you can see where he could have been really integral to the plot but instead he gets left behind to drink all the beer while his kid goes off and has adventures.

Basically I think this book would have been better if it were Hollow Earth, which has weird stuff well explained and lots of characters with actual character. But again, teen me would have loved it anyway, so there’s clearly no accounting for taste.

Recommendation: For readers seeking weirdness that comes with pictures and those who appreciate the “kids with absent parents” part of most children’s books.

Rating: 5/10

Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett UndercoverOh, man. I don’t even know what to do with this book. I wanted to like it, because the description referenced Veronica Mars and I am a fluffy fluffy Marshmallow, but of course nothing is as good as Veronica Mars (even the VM books themselves!) and also this book was just kind of a hot mess.

So, problem one was obviously the Veronica Mars reference point, because this is not really that. There’s a teen detective, sure, but she’s not a scrappy teen following in her dad’s PI footsteps with his grudging permission/acceptance. Scarlett is instead a scrappy teen who graduated early from high school and instead of going to college set up some sort of detective shop with no discernible training nor method of paying rent. Her grudging father figure is an actual detective who investigated her dad’s murder and who apparently encouraged the whole PI career thing but also thinks she shouldn’t do it? I am super unclear on how Scarlett operates.

Problem number two is my problem with so many things, but on a much grander scale. No one uses their goddamn words in this book. I kid you not, the first at least half of the book involves Scarlett asking people questions and them saying “I can’t tell you” or “I won’t tell you” or “You’re not ready to know that” or “You’re asking the wrong question,” including one scene in which Scarlett asks her bff/quasi-boyfriend why he has a tattoo that he has just revealed to her, and his answer is “The better question is where did I get it?” I have finished the book, and I can tell you that the better question is WHY DOES HE HAVE IT. This answer would have saved so much time and frustration and outright danger, so of course no one answers it.

Problem three is the story itself, which starts out with Scarlett taking the case of a nine-year-old (!) girl who wants to know why her brother is acting weird, but as you may guess from the above problems the case turns out to actually be about a huge secret that was kept from Scarlett her entire life and which led to the inordinate amounts of danger she soon finds herself in. Which, I mean, okay, I guess, but seriously, COMMUNICATION, people. Anyway, the scant clues she gets lead her all over town to all these different people who won’t tell her anything but all kind of know her or her family and are all related in the most convenient of ways and everything is super weird the whole time and I just couldn’t even.

Problem four, the fact that Scarlett is black and Muslim, should have been a slam-dunk plus of a cool diverse character, but Scarlett’s religion was played as a teachable moment instead of a character facet, which was super lame. Information about Muslim culture was shoved into the narrative like, hey, Muslims pray five times a day except not always! Some Muslims are less observant than others! Some Muslims wear a hijab! Muslims have a traditional greeting! Muslims have interesting historical tales that you might not have heard before! I know it’s a book for teens and that I can’t expect teens to be interested in looking stuff up (my goodness, do they not want to look stuff up, says my librarian brain), but I would have found the book so much more interesting if the author (editor? publicist? who knows?) didn’t insist on explaining the heck out of every interesting Muslim tidbit.

So… that’s a lot of problems, and they don’t even include the general weirdness of the writing. But strangely, for all the problems I had with the book as I was reading it, and all the problems I still have now, I still think it was worth reading and that younger teens, including probably my twelve-year-old self, would find it a heck of a lot more entertaining than I did. There’s lots of action, there’s a black Muslim protagonist, there’s a love story that involves no triangles, and there’s some neat historical and cultural information for readers to chew on. I wouldn’t read it again, but I know a few of my library teens that would!

Recommendation: For teens who like plucky teen detectives and super weird weirdness.

Rating: 5/10