Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping GiantsAfter our previous dispiriting road trip audiobook, Scott and I were in the mood for something a little more engaging. Sleeping Giants came highly recommended by my bookish bestie and so I was thrilled when it came in on Overdrive just before our trip back to Florida. And I’ll tell you this: it is a GREAT road trip listen.

It’s a great audiobook primarily because of the style — like World War Z before it, it’s written as an oral history and narrated by a full cast, bringing some much-appreciated variety to the audio. Here I have to admit that I didn’t terribly much like the main, unnamed narrator and his awkward speech style, but in service of the story I was willing to put up with it.

And what a story it is. It starts with a girl who falls into a hole and lands on a giant hand, as one does, and then that girl grows up and studies physics and ends up, coincidentally (or is it?), on a team studying said giant hand. Soon enough, another giant body part shows up and the military gets involved, and then the unnamed narrator and his shadowy organization get involved and it becomes a whole big thing, looking for giant body parts and figuring out how they fit together.

That’s the big story; the small story is the team that’s working on this body part rescue mission and how they interact with each other. There’s some predictable and predictably sexist love triangle crap, but there’s also a lot of legitimately interesting interactions between the team members.

But let’s be real, the big story is more interesting. Giant body parts! Shadowy organizations! Aliens?! Mutually assured destruction! It is completely crazypants bonkers and delightful. And then, spoilers, there’s a fascinating cliffhanger ending that had better mean there’s another book coming.

Other reviews I’ve seen of this book compare it to World War Z, obviously, and then also The Martian, which I see a little less. I would place this more with The Three Body Problem for its big ideas and its ridiculous science.

It’s not a really good book, but it is really good brain candy and a great way to pass eight and a half hours in a car. If you’re in the market for action, adventure, and excitement, this ought to do the trick.

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Weekend Shorts: Saga, Alex + Ada, and MIND MGMT

I’ve been doing a lot of snappy, quippy titles on my Weekend Shorts posts lately, but I had to go back to a boring title for this one because I just couldn’t find the through-line for these three series. If you can figure out where I could have gone with this, I will give you ten points and a cookie!

Saga, Vol. 5Saga, Vol. 5, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
I actually read this about a million years (read: three months) ago, but it slipped off my posting radar. Luckily I own this one, so I can grab it off my shelf and remind myself what’s up.

:skims volume:

Ah, yes. We drop into this volume with all the bad things in full swing: Hazel is kidnapped, Alana and Klara are trapped, Sophie and Sophie and Gwendolyn are fighting dragons, Marko is stuck with Prince Robot IV on a crappy mission.

But of course, things only get worse from there, as drugs lead to drug-induced flashbacks to horrible life experiences and well-intentioned plans get completely derailed by reality and greed.

And then Brian K. Vaughan channels his inner George R.R. Martin and just kills the shit out of everyone, including a favorite of mine, and I’m not sure I can forgive him for that but luckily his characters aren’t too thrilled about it either, so I think things will be getting interesting in the aftermath. This book continues to be one of my favorite things ever.

Alex + Ada, Vol. 1Alex + Ada, Vol. 1, by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughan
I stumbled across this title on hoopla and remembered hearing good things about it, so I grabbed the first volume and read it before even getting out of bed one morning. I wasn’t sure at first that I would like it, but it definitely grew on me.

The plot is sort of reminiscent of the movie Her — in a near-future world people can buy, for many many dollars, an incredibly realistic robot companion that is indistinguishable from an actual human except for a tattoo and the fact that the robot is, well, a robot, and not really capable of passing the Turing test. If you’re the kind of person who just wants a companion who will agree with you and do all the things you like (and I mean ALL the things, eyebrow waggle, etc.), then it’s perfect.

Our protagonist, Alex, is gifted one such robot from his grandmother, who loves her robot sooooo much and thinks Alex will love his, too. He is, let’s say, not thrilled, and tries to return the robot, but it’s hard to return something that just wants you to like it and he ends up keeping it. Her. Ada.

But Alex isn’t content with his new friend that likes everything that he likes, so he seeks out a way to make her more human. Turns out there’s a secret society of people and robots that have done just that, and Alex can make his robot as sentient as possible… for a price.

I liked this book all right, though it took far too many issues to get to the good stuff. It says some really interesting things about friendships and relationships and sentience and humanity, and I’m hoping that the next volume will get some plot going. But if it doesn’t, eh, it’s hoopla, so I’m only out my time.

MIND MGMT, Vol. 1MIND MGMT, Vol. 1, by Matt Kindt
Another serendipitous find on hoopla. I love free comics, guys. Well, comics paid for by my tax dollars, which sounds even better, actually!

In this world, which I think is roughly present-day, there’s a journalist, Meru, who is banking on a crazy story to get her career back on track — a plane full of people that managed to land safely even though everyone on board developed a terrible amnesia that persists, two years later. Meru is sure that if she can just track down the one person that mysteriously vanished from the scene, she’ll have a story and a new book and maybe some cash to buy groceries.

But there’s definitely more to this story than Meru knows. She’s being tailed by mysterious agents, she’s finding people and places that are not as they should be, and the story’s narrator indicates that this is not the first time Meru has followed the same clues to the same ending. Suspicious!

In the midst of this main story, we learn more about the titular MIND MGMT, a secret organization that trains up promising young people with special mental abilities to do relatively mundane things like impart subliminal messages in advertising or relatively insane things like survive certain death. It’s a crazy organization, and it obviously has something to do with Meru’s quest, but it’s not quite clear yet exactly how they fit together.

I am so intrigued by this story, and so in love with the artwork, which is sketchy and watercolor-y and generally very pretty, that not only am I excited to read the next volume in this series but I have bought the first issue of Kindt’s new series, Dept. H, which has the same lovely art style and an equally weird story summary. I hope I’ll be able to report back with love for both!

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonWhat a weird book. This is one of the many books that ended up on my TBR list because the internets told me it would be good, and I read it because I saw it at the library and remembered that I thought it would be good. Maybe that’s not the best way to go into reading this book, because it is super weird and you need to be prepared. I can help!

Okay, so. This book. How to describe it. Besides weird. Which it is. Hmm.

Let’s start broad. This book is set in Lagos, Nigeria, in I think roughly the present day. A lot of the tension and interestingness in the novel come from this setting, particularly in the way that the people of Lagos treat magic and religion and how those interact with science and logic. I was very glad to have recently read Half of a Yellow Sun, which helped me sometimes to figure out what was “a Nigeria thing” and what was actually weird in this novel. Sometimes.

What really intrigued me in this book is that the main protagonist is a woman of science, fighting against her husband’s belief in the goodness of his religion and the badness of the magic he believes she has, but then also the book is full of actual magic and also aliens and so the fight isn’t between science and religion or logic and magic but between the people who don’t see them interact in quite the same way. This caught me off guard, but in a good way, I suppose, and I kind of want to go back through the book and know this from the beginning and see how it changes my reading.

If those overarching themes hadn’t already had my brain working overtime, the story itself would have done it quite nicely. It’s a deceptively simple story: what would happen if aliens showed up in Nigeria? But when you throw in lots of narrators and characters and points of view (including POVs of fish and, um, roads) and wade through all of the baggage that all of these characters carry, getting a shape-shifting alien an audience with the Prime Minister of Nigeria is really difficult.

I didn’t read this book especially quickly, partly because I was constantly wondering if I should even keep reading because I clearly had no idea what was going on, but I’m not sure it’s a book you should or can read quickly. If I had been prescient, I would have picked this for one of my book clubs so that I could have all the people to talk about all the things with. There’s still time, I suppose…. Until then, I do have this fancy comment section if anyone wants to help me figure out what’s up with those poisonous oceans!

Recommendation: For people with time for thinky-thought-thinking and those who love magical realism and aliens.

End-of-the-Year Comics Roundup: Weird Things Edition

Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! Let’s finish off the year that I bought all the comics with some thoughts about my favorite weird-pants series.

The Unwritten, Vol. 10: “War Stories”, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
The Unwritten, Volume 10I have had all these Unwritten issues and trades sitting around my house forever, and it’s taking me so long to read them because the series has changed drastically since the beginning. I liked it a ton when it was a weird little series that referenced Harry Potter and other wonderful stories and made you think a little bit about “what if stories were real?” I still like it now, but the current focus, “stories are real and also dangerous and also kind of boring,” is not so great.

But the comics themselves are so lovely that I can live with it. The first issue in this collection is just Tom trying to get home from… Fableland or wherever he was (I am paying close attention, you can tell)… but he drops into several different story worlds, including Narnia and Wonderland, and the art changes to match the style of those stories and it’s super neat. The next couple issues have their writing in the style of old stories, which is something that was done more at the beginning of the series and I like seeing it again. And then the last issue of the volume brings back Mr. Bun, which, YAY, and also his story is very sad and is clearly not going to end well, which, stop making me feel bad for Mr. Bun, guys, he’s an asshole.

There’s just two volumes left in this series and part of me wants to read them to find out what happens and part of me wants to read them to get them over with and part of me wants to save them forever and ever so that there can’t be an end to this story. Which part will win? I suppose we’ll find out eventually…

FBP, Vol. 3: “Audeamus”, by Simon Oliver and Alberto Ponticelli
FBP, Volume 3This series has also changed quite a bit in just three volumes — it started with the weird pseudo-science physics-gone-bad stories and, especially in this volume, has moved into deep-dark-conspiracy territory. I’m a little worried it’s going to keep moving that way and become The Unwritten all over again, but for now I’ll hold out hope.

This volume starts off like it’s going to be light, leading with a story of Cicero’s time at the FBP that is generally full of college pranks and jocks vs. nerds until it’s suddenly about something very different. Then we come back to the present world to learn a bit more about Hardy’s dead dad and then the dangerous physics comes back with a quantum tornado that sort of maybe kills a whole bunch of people. But the pseudo-science is lovely and there’s a precocious little girl, so, that’s cool. Then it’s off to the Giant Underground Bunker of Conspiracy-Land, where we find out that the rules of morality are pretty much in the same place as the rules of physics in this alternate world, and I’m pretty sure I’m not okay with that.

The Woods, Vol. 2: “The Swarm”, by James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynas
The Woods, Volume 2If you missed my post about the first volume of this series, what we have here is a story about a high school transported to an alien planet, with danger lurking both outside and inside the school walls. Dun dun DUN. I am all in.

In this volume, we spend about half of each issue getting the Earth-bound backstory of a different character, roughly in the time leading up to the school’s big move. The other half shows the character on the alien planet, sometimes acting pretty much the same and sometimes showing a completely different version of themselves. Layers! We also get to see how these different and sometimes competing sides of the characters affect their interactions with each other, which is a thing I love.

Very cool things about these issues include the fact that the big love triangle is between three guys, and the fact that a different love triangle includes a side made out of friendship, because dude, losing your friend to a relationship is hard stuff and I like how this series acknowledges that. The best issue in this volume, which I will try not to spoil but probably will anyway, looks like the others but has a very interesting twist that changes how you look at the other issues and at the other characters and I am VERY INTRIGUED to see what happens next. Luckily, I’ve already got the next volume on hand!

Well, I guess that’s it for 2015! See you all next year!

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 End of All Things, Parts 2, 3, and 4

I had intended to read Scalzi’s latest book in novella form, one at a time, and report back here after each one. And I did try, with part one hanging out over here. But then I read part two and got distracted by other things, and then I sat down with part three and ended up reading part four immediately thereafter, and so I’m going to go ahead and lump them all here together. And if you haven’t already obtained these stories, I’m gonna say just wait for the full book release in August, because seriously, you’ll just read them all in one sitting anyway!

Part 2: This Hollow Union

This Hollow UnionYou’d think, after the wham-bam opening of The Life of the Mind, Scalzi might relax a bit, have a quieter interlude, but no, of course not, let’s blow some more stuff up! In this second novella, we go back to the Conclave with our good friend Hafte Sorvalh, who is trying her darndest to steer the Conclave’s leader, General Gau, through like six miles of metaphorical potholed road as the Conclave tries to deal with the problem of having two sets of humans to deal with. For every great plan Sorvalh comes up with, though, a giant wrench is thrown into it in the form of an exploding spaceship or an uncovered conspiracy or a political assassination. Goody.

I like Sorvalh and I like Scalzi’s political machinations, so this was a great story to read. There’s plenty of planning and counter-planning, and even though everything doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, things do work out in their own special way by the end. Scalzi also throws some extra world-building into this story, with some background on Sorvalh’s people that is unexpected and fascinating, and with some gender-identity stuff that comes off a little forced but is still pretty neat. Also, bonus cameo by our favorite brain in a box!

Part 3: Can Long Endure

Can Long EndureHere’s the story where Scalzi gets a bit more contemplative, although there’s still plenty of action to go around. This story has a neat structure, with each mini chapter taking place on a different day of the week, though not all the same week because nobody would survive that much excitement. On each of these days, our other good friend Heather Lee is leading a special ops team to fix some problems in the best Colonial-Union style — sneaky and then absurdly showy. Things mostly go well for them until they really really don’t, at which point punching people in the face is definitely the order of the day.

The contemplative part comes from the conversations the team has while they’re not sneaking around or shooting people or threatening to shoot people or whatever, which are comprised mainly of team members being so over all the Colonial Union posturing and wondering why they’re having to do so much of it. The team is ready to carry out their jobs, no problem, but they’re all kind of wishing it wasn’t necessary. It’s a perspective that Scalzi gives most of his characters, to some extent, but it’s different seeing it in the everyday bureaucrats as opposed to this particular strike force.

Part 4: To Stand or Fall

To Stand or FallThinky bits out of the way, this story gets us back to negotiating and making wild, possibly impossible plans and also blowing stuff up, ’cause that’s how you fight a space war, people. This novella nicely wraps up the various threads of conspiracy and subterfuge from the first three and also from the last book, bringing together our favorite diplomats to solve the Earth/Conclave/Colonial Union problem (temporarily, anyway) in as showy a fashion as possible, because that’s how they all do. Why can’t they just be friends, again?

Overall, the four stories of this novel make a great addition to my beloved Old Man’s War universe and a lovely summer read, if you like your summer reads heavy on the sarcasm and the blowing things up. Which apparently I do. I can only hope that Scalzi’s insane book contract involves at least one more foray into this world!

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