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Bellwether by Connie Willis

Coffee shops. Statistics. Management. Sheep. Fads and trends. Anti-smoking activism. Mail delivery. Chaos theory. Rom-com. Romantic Bride Barbie. Duct tape. Post-modern pink.

All of these forces and subjects and more combine and influence and permutate and percolate to form one funny, sweet, and at the same time thoughtful, romantic comedy of a novel. I was charmed. Bellwether is certainly not as meaty or deep as Willis’s other novels, but it might be a good introduction to her work.

Sandy Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. She becomes acquainted with fellow HiTek corporation scientist Bennett O’Reilly by accident—a case of mis-delivered mail. As fate and the highly incompetent mail clerk, Flip, continue to throw Sandy and Bennett together, she becomes interested in his seeming immunity to fads. Bennett, oblivious to Sandy’s growing interest, continues to pursue his interest in chaos theory. Can a flock of sheep and a new office assistant help them to truly see each other and achieve equilibrium?

Connie Willis continues to be my favorite living science fiction author. I highly recommend her other novels:

Doomsday Book, reviewed at Semicolon: my first foray into the world of Connie Willis, and her first book in a series about time-traveling historians.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, reviewed at Semicolon: Comedy and time travel in Victorian England.

Blackout and All Clear, reviewed at Semicolon: one book, really, in two volumes. The time-traveling historians visit World War II England.

Passage: about NDE’s or Near Death Experiences.

Her short stories are probably worth checking out too, if you like short stories. I don’t read short stories, unless I have very good reason to believe that the story up for perusal is worth the aggravation of its being so very short. I haven’t read Ms. Willis’s short stories, but she’s such a good author that I may give them a try.

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Piper has never seen the mark of the dragonfly until she finds the girl amid the wreckage of a caravan in the meteor fields.
The girl doesn’t remember a thing about her life, but the intricate tattoo on her arm is proof that she’s from the Dragonfly Territories and that she’s protected by the king. Which means a reward for Piper if she can get the girl home.
The one sure way to the Dragonfly Territories is the 401, a great old beauty of a train. But a ticket costs more coin than Piper could make in a year. And stowing away is a difficult prospect–everyone knows that getting past the peculiar green-eyed boy who stands guard is nearly impossible.
Life for Piper just turned dangerous. A little bit magical. And very exciting, if she can manage to survive the journey. ~from Jaleigh Johnson’s website

Techno-steampunk fantasy science fiction. With the exception of a couple of “blips” in the plot (Where did Anna get the money to run away on the express train? How did King Aren know about the traitors?), The Mark of the Dragonfly was an absorbing, worthy entry in the middle grade steampunk genre.

Most of the story takes place on a train, the 401, which makes the story automatically attractive to those of us who have an interest in trains. The fact that this novel doesn’t read as if it is the first in a trilogy makes it inviting for those of us who are tired of trilogies. And the characters and the world of the novel are appealing. Piper and the girl she finds, Anna, are a fine pair of friends, and the green-eyed guard, Gee, makes a good foil to Piper’s feisty, combative nature.

I would recommend this one to anyone who’s interested in trains, dystopia, futuristic sci-fi, or spunky female protagonists. Unfortunately, the characters in the novel pray to “the goddess”—who is never described or fleshed out, only mentioned, so if that mention offends, you want to skip or skim over those brief references.

Ms. Johnson does say on her FAQ page: “In 2014 I’ll be working on the companion novel to The Mark of the Dragonfly. It’s set in the world of Solace but follows different characters.” So no sequel or trilogy, but a companion. Not too much commitment required.

Tesla’s Attic by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman

A very promising first book in The Accelerati Trilogy, this science fiction adventure follows the escapades of Nick Slate, the new guy in town, and his friends in Colorado Springs where they find that the legacy of genius and inventor Nikola Tesla, a bunch of weird old electrical and mechanical devices and appliances found in Nick’s attic, is more than a little dangerous. What’s more The Accelerati, whoever they are, are competing with Nick and his friends to gain control of the power of Tesla’s mad inventions.

The tone and style of this adventure were pitch perfect, with a little more adolescent boy/girl stuff than I would have liked, but still the clues were dropped and then picked up and tied together neatly with room left for the sequel(s). I really enjoyed the way these two authors worked together to foreshadow the coming action and warn the reader about what would or could happen while at the same surprising me with a few twists and turns I wasn’t expecting.

Oh, the book begins with a great first line: “Nick was hit by a flying toaster.” Doesn’t that make you curious?

QOTD: Some people think Nikola Tesla was one of the most fascinating geniuses who ever lived. Who fascinates you? What person or persons in history would you like to invite to your dinner party, just to hear what they had to say?

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

“Shannon Hale as you’ve never read her before!” screams the back cover of my ARC. I would concur. If you’re a fan of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and its sequels or her other fairytale-ish stories for middle graders or her take-off on Jane Austen for adult readers, Dangerous might feel a little, well, like new and dangerous territory for Ms. Hale and her readers.

Dangerous is very sci-fi and it’s very much a super-hero story, like Superman(Girl) or Batman or (fill-in-the-blank). The author makes use of lots of common super-hero tropes: a team of superheroes with different powers that work together, hero who dies but is not really dead, the love triangle, big business is evil, superhero needs to save the world from evil aliens. However, and this is where it gets interesting, some of the cliches Ms. Hale turns inside out. Our protagonist, Maisie Danger Brown, who ends up being the only one who can save the world, is a girl. She has loving parents who play a large role in the story. She quotes poetry to express her emotions; however, she’s really into science and math, but not geometry. The team turns out to be not very team-like, with traitors and brokenness abounding.

I read the ARC back in November of 2013, and I’ve found that the outlines of the story stuck with me. Ms. Hale is a skilled writer, with some solidly good ideas. I highly recommend her latest.

Publication date: March 4, 2014.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?

SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT!

If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, unbelievable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

Note: I do not usually give “stars” or numerical ratings to books, and after reading The Circle, I doubt if I ever will again. I can’t believe all of the people on Goodreads who say they have read the book and are still giving it a numerical rating. The sheer farce of assigning everyone and everything a numerical value and “liking” or “not liking” it is well-parodied in The Circle. So, just don’t do it, folks. Books are not numbers. (Although I kind of like “like” buttons . . .)

And, yes, I know that the gadget I’m using to allow you to share this review on social media sites, says “sharing is caring” just below this post. Irony or the beginning of the approach to Armageddon?

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

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I’m reluctant to say it, but the writing quality seems to have dropped between this third book in the trilogy and the first one. Fans will still want to know what happens to Tris and Four and their city of factions, but they may be as disappointed as I was in the dialogue and plot development in Allegiant.

First of all, there are character motivation and plot continuity problems. POSSIBLE SPOILERS!!! At one point Four is supposed to have joined a rebellion and betrayed the entire compound in which he and Tris are living, and in addition, caused the death of at least one character. He is put on “probation” by the authorities. Then, he proceeds to go wherever he wants, talk to whomever he wants, and become involved in yet another rebellion. It seems unlikely to say the least.

Tris, too, is able to see and hear and get information way beyond the trust level that she has earned, and her ability to escape death and serious injury is nearly magical. I found it difficult to understand how the society where Tris and Four find themselves can be so security-conscious and at the same time so negligent in supervising and guarding against these teen “strangers”, some of whom are believed to be “genetically damaged” and therefore prone to violence and unbalanced choices.

Tris and Four promise each other to be completely honest and to keep no secrets from one another. Then they both tell half-truths and keep secrets from each other. And the motivation for their doing so is inadequate and unbelievable. Four believes a girl he barely knows and keeps secrets from Tris on her behalf—because he’s feeling insecure? Tris has her own secrets that she keeps for the sake of—not burdening Four?

Four and Tris become more and more physically involved with one another in this book, while at the same time arguing over issues of honesty and keeping secrets from one another and forgiveness. The book shows a true picture of how a romance can “heat up” physically while the couple involved have to endure misunderstandings and betrayals and continue to “choose each other” daily in order to stay together. But Tris and Four act extremely mature and make critical choices in life and death situations in one moment while at the next juncture they’re dealing with and exhibiting immaturity, jealousy, and possessiveness at a middle school level.

I predict that lots of fans are not going to like the ending, but the last few chapters were actually my favorite part of the book. Four and Tris really grow up fast in the last quarter of the book and show us the maturity that I wanted to see throughout this third book. To get to the ending I also had to endure superfluous characters (a homosexual couple introduced solely for the purpose of “diversity”), unexplained rabbit trails, and awkward pacing and dialogue. But I’m glad I finished the book. And I’m looking forward to the Divergent movie. (Divergent is scheduled to be released on March 21, 2014 in the United States.) However, unless the movie people–directors and screenwriters—do something really special with the second and third books in the trilogy, I probably won’t bother seeing those movies, if they even get made.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Redux

In light of the movie that’s just been released, I thought I’d re-run my review of Ender’s Game from 2006 when I first read it. I would add the updated perspective that I’m much less inclined to think of books as “boys’ books” or “girls’ books” nowadays, having been proved wrong so many times by my own children and others. Suffice it to say that Ender’s Game is violent, with few or no well-rounded female characters.

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I hate mind games; this book was one big mind game.
I’m not too fond of war movies or novels or violence; Ender’s Game is all about war and violence.
I’m more of a fantasy fan than a science fiction fan; Ender’s Game is science fiction with a vengeance.
And to top it all off, this violent science fiction novel that tries to play games with the reader’s mind is definitely a boys’ book. It wasn’t written for girls, and it probably won’t appeal to many of them.

However, I thought Ender’s Game was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time; maybe the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read. Someone told me that Ender’s Game is on the required reading list for Marine Corps officer candidates. I can see why; did I mention that this book is very military, very male?

Ender Wiggin is an illegal Third (third child), but like his brother, Peter, and his sister, Valentine, he is a genius. The powers that be hope he is also the one kid who can save the world from the Buggers who have already invaded Earth twice and are expected back anytime. Or maybe we’re planning to get them before they invade for a third time. Either way Ender, still a child, must learn enough very quickly to lead Earth’s army in what may turn out to be Armageddon, the final battle for domination of Earth and its colonies.

The themes in this book make it intriguing even as the plot twists and surprises keep the reader turning the pages to see what will happen next. Ender’s Game asks questions about power and violence and sin and forgiveness. Is it morally acceptable to use overwhelming force against an enemy when you know that enemy is willing and able to destroy you? What if you begin to enjoy the exercise of violence and power over others for its own sake? Can members of very different cultures communicate and make peace, or are they doomed to destroy one another? Is it acceptable to strike first to destroy an enemy who has already attacked you once? Can people change? Does a truly evil child, a torturer, become civilized? How? How are leaders formed? What makes a group, an army unit, for instance, a cohesive force? How does a leader go about creating that cohesiveness?

Lots of questions. Some of these questions are questions that we’re still pondering and muddling through as a country in the aftermath of 9/11. Orson Scott Card certainly doesn’t have all the answers, and I thought the ending of the book was its weakest part. However, he definitely asks the right questions, questions that we will be forced to answer as we deal with our own crises in this post 9/11 world.

Highly recommended with one caveat: the language is army language, rough and crude. If that bothers you, skip this book. (To tell the truth, crude language annoys me. However, it wasn’t gratuitous; I would imagine that men whose profession is violent use just the kind of language that is in this book, only worse.) I think it’s worth skimming over some words in order to read this story and think about its implications.

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I assume the movie asks and attempts to answer some of the same questions. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard it’s quite violent, in keeping with the source material.

Well-tuned Fundamental Constants in a Highly Strange Universe

'2012_11_260021' photo (c) 2012, Gwydion M. Williams - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Physicists are apparently having trouble explaining to themselves (much less the rest of us) what the Higgs Boson, for the theory of which two physicists were recently awarded the Nobel Prize, actually means.

“One possibility has been brought up that even physicists don’t like to think about. Maybe the universe is even stranger than they think. Like, so strange that even post-Standard Model models can’t account for it. Some physicists are starting to question whether or not our universe is natural. This cuts to the heart of why our reality has the features that it does: that is, full of quarks and electricity and a particular speed of light.

This problem, the naturalness or unnaturalness of our universe, can be likened to a weird thought experiment. Suppose you walk into a room and find a pencil balanced perfectly vertical on its sharp tip. That would be a fairly unnatural state for the pencil to be in because any small deviation would have caused it to fall down. This is how physicists have found the universe: a bunch of rather well-tuned fundamental constants have been discovered that produce the reality that we see.”

No comment. You probably know what this conundrum indicates to me, anyway, given my presuppositions.

Cybils 2013 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Here are a few ideas for nominees for the Cybils category, Middle Grade Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction and Fantasy):

The Spies of Gerander by Frances Watts. Book Two in the series, The Song of the Winns. I just read this sequel and liked it even better than I did the first in the series, Song of the Winns. The pace is picking up, and I’m starting to fall for the mice characters. In fact, it’s been a good year for talking mice characters.

Darkbeast Rebellion by Morgan Keyes. Reviewed at Charlotte’s Library.

The Quirks: Welcome to Normal by Erin Soderberg. Reviewed at Charlotte’s Library.

Cake: Love, Chickens and a Taste of Peculiar by Joyce Magnin, reviewed at Semicolon.

A Whole Lot of Lucky by Danette Haworth. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Risked by Margaret Peterson Haddix. One of my favorite middle grade/YA authors.

Listening for Lucca by Suzanne LaFleur. Reviewed at A Garden Carried in the Pocket.

The Incredible Charlotte Sycamore by Kate Maddison. Reviewed at Charlotte’s Library.

There are lots more ideas/reminders in this post at Charlotte’s Library. And here’s yet another list from the lovely Charlotte. Surely, you have a favorite from one of these lists. If so, nominate before October 15th at the Cybils website.

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright.

Wow! After reading Mr. Wright’s exposé of L. Ron Hubbard’s “new religion” of Scientology, I want to make sure that I and my family never even read any of Mr. Hubbard’s multitudinous works of fiction, much less his supposed nonfiction best sellers such as Dianetics and Self Analysis, to name only a couple of the many, many books he wrote and published. (Mitt Romney said during his run for the presidency that his favorite novel was Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. That’s a little disturbing on several levels.) Yes, I know that sounds a little paranoid, and the books themselves may or may not be harmlessly entertaining, but the information about the abusiveness of Scientology in Going Clear is just that disturbing. So disturbing that I’m looking for my ten foot pole.

Scientology doesn’t get many (any) kudos in this book by a Pulitzer prize winning author and journalist. Famous Scientologists come across as either well-meaning fools (John Travolta) or deluded jerks (Tom Cruise). Hubbard himself seems to have been a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur and a sadistic streak. Then, of course, he did establish a religious empire with millions of dollars in assets and a lot (Scientology won’t say exactly how many, with estimates varying widely and wildly) of adherents.

I won’t go into the specific abuses and illegalities that Mr. Wright alleges against Hubbard and the Scientology organization. You can read the book for more corrupt and salacious details than you probably want to know. I will warn anyone who is even considering taking one of Scientology’s copious and expensive courses that he or she should read Wright’s book first. If even half of what Mr. Wright writes is right, then you will want to stay as far away from Scientology as possible.

Of course, Lawrence implies in the final chapters of his book that all religious faiths are much the same as Scientology in their irrationality and odd beliefs. He writes, ” . . . every religion features bizarre and uncanny elements.” Then he proceeds to compare Scientology to Christian Science, the Amish, Shakers, Buddhists, Pentecostals, and several other groups. He’s struggling to put Scientology into some sort of context, but there is very little precedent for an L. Ron Hubbard and his invention of a money-making pseudo-science that outlived its founder. To invoke one of those beliefs that Mr. Wright classifies as bizarre, I think Scientology is simply demonic.

Read the book and weep for those who are enmeshed in a belief system that defies belief. I especially felt moved to pray for those children who are raised and indoctrinated in Mr. Hubbard’s exploitative religion. I believe the only Power that can free them from such an insidious and insane cult is the power and sanity of Jesus Christ.

Famous Scientologists and former Scientologists. I was surprised to read (not in this book but online as I looked up information) that author Neil Gaiman was raised in a Scientology family. He has left the Church of Scientology as an adult, but prefers not to talk about it either negatively or positively, probably because he still has family members who are deeply involved in Scientology.

Other author connections with Scientology:
Science fiction author Robert Heinlein was close friends with L. Ron Hubbard in their early days in the 1940′s as aspiring writers of science fiction. In fact, Hubbard had an affair with Heinlein’s wife, after which they weren’t such good friends anymore.

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest for new writers of science fiction and Illustrators of the Future contest are “prestigious and lucrative. They feature judges who are among the biggest names in the field, and they’ve helped launch the careers of important new artists.” These contests are administrated, sponsored, and funded by a subsidiary of The Church of Scientology. However, the judges and the authors who win the annual contests are, for the most part, not members of the Church of Scientology. (Scientology’s Writers of the Future Contest, Village Voice, by Tony Ortega)