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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)

UnWholly by Neal Shusterman

A sequel to Shusterman’s best-selling Unwind. I think publishers probably talked him into making it a trilogy in light of the success of The Hunger Games and other dystopian fiction series. It was a good move for all concerned, whoever had the idea.

UnWholly begins where Unwind left off: Connor and Risa are leaders at The Graveyard, an airplane parts yard in the Arizona desert, where teens who have escaped from the unwinding centers have taken refuge. Lev lives with his brother in an apartment under sort of probationary status, and he spends his time counseling troubled youth who are in danger of being sent by their parents to the unwind centers themselves. This new book includes:
trouble in paradise in the relationship between Risa and Connor,
evil parts pirates who sell children to the highest bidders so that their organs can be harvested,
a “storked” (abandoned) teen named Starkey who will stop at nothing to get revenge on his parents and to wrest control of The Graveyard from Connor,
a million dollar creature named Cam who is simply a conglomeration of parts from dozens, maybe hundreds, of unwound teens,
and Miracolina, a tithe (person who chooses to be unwound as an offering) who isn’t brainwashed but really, truly does want to give herself to others through unwinding.

This second book continues to bring up ethical dilemmas and give readers room to work through them in a story environment. If the idea of self-sacrifice bothers us as a society, do we have the right to force people to not give up their lives for others? When does the laudable goal of sacrificing oneself for others become the horror of suicide and self-immolation? What is real leadership, and how much responsibility should a leader take for the entire group? Does a good leader keep secrets that he thinks are too hard for the group to handle? What is the right way to deal with teenage rebellion? Do all humans need something or someone to worship? If so, should they be allowed or even encouraged to worship whomever they want as long as they are learning to become psychologically whole? What makes someone a “real person”? If you receive transplanted body parts from another person, at what point do you become not yourself, but some else?

Mr. Shusterman wrote UnWind in 2007. In the five years since that book was published, we have come closer and closer to the kind of society he describes. Already we have a “black market for body parts in Europe” and other places. Children are encouraged, sometimes forced, to become child soldiers in Africa and suicide bombers in the Middle East.

Sunday Salon: Books Read in November and December, 2012

I didn’t manage to get an end of the month post written for November, so here are the books I read in November and December:

Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction:
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin.
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde.
Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey.
In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz.
Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill.
The Cup and the Crown by Diane Stanley.
Beauty and the Beast: The Only One who Didn’t Run Away by Wendy Mass.
Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung.
Deadly Pink by Vivian Vande Velde.
Freakling by Lana Krumwiede.
The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda.
The Voyage of Lucy P. Simmons by Barbara Mariconda.
Tilly’s Moonlight Garden by Julia Green.
Signed by Zelda by Kate Feiffer.
The Dead Gentleman by Matthw Cody.
Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui Sutherland.
The Hop by Sharelle Byars Moranville.
Project Jackalope by Emily Ecton.
My Very UnFairy Tale Life by Anna Staniszewski.
The Storm Makers by Jennifer E. Smith.
Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time by James Dashner.
The Secret of the Ginger Mice by Frances Watts.
The Peculiar by Stefan Bachman.
The Seven Tales of Trinket by Shelley Moore Thomas
The Whispering House by Rebecca Wade.
A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle.
Whatever After: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski.
The Brightworking by Paul B. Thompson.
Darkbeast by Morgan Keyes.
Twice Upon a Time by James Riley.
Caught by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

Young Adult Fiction:
Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow.

Adult Fiction:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Since everybody and her dog was recommending this psychological thriller, I decided to read it. It was intelligent, well-plotted, psychologically astute, crude, profane, and ultimately repellent. The ending was especially disturbing.
Call of Duty by Charles Todd.

Nonfiction:
From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism by Chris Haw.
Gray Matter, A Neurosurgeon Discovers the Power of Prayer . . . One Patient at a Time by David Levy, with Joel Kilpatrick.

The Storm Makers by Jennifer E. Smith

I don’t know what they’re paying Brett Helquist to illustrate a book, but if it’s not a lot, he should demand more. I also don’t know if Mr. Helquist has some kind of magical spell that he places on his illustrations, but I’m telling you that his pictures draw me into a story in a way that seems almost bewitched. I’m reading along, thinking how much I’m enjoying the story, glancing at the illustrations, thinking something looks familiar about them. However, I don’t usually pay much attention to pictures. Then, I get to the end of the book, close it with a satisfied sigh, and idly wonder who the illustrator was. I look and see that it was Brett Helquist, and I try to imagine the book without the added dimension of Mr. Helquist’s drawings. It’s just not the same story without the pictures.

The Storm Makers would be a good book even without illustrations, but with Helquist’s talents, it’s a great book. The twins Ruby and Simon McDuff have moved to a farm in Wisconsin from their previous home in Chicago. Dad wants to be an inventor, and Mom wants to become an artist. And since the move, all Simon can think about is baseball and being with other boys. Ruby misses the way she and her brother used to share everything. Now it feels as if everything is changing, and she and Simon are miles apart even though they live in the same house.

The changes that are coming, however, push Ruby and Simon closer and closer together, even if they’re not sure what to do about the drought and storms that are shaking their little world. Could Simon have a special talent that might put him in great danger? Who is the mysterious stranger hiding out in the old barn? Who can Ruby and Simon trust to tell them the truth about the weather and the world?

I really don’t want to tell you too much more about this book because I want you to enjoy all the twists and turns as much as I did. I was a bit frustrated with the “good guys” and how little information they were willing to share with Ruby and Simon. And of course, you know that “door” that you absolutely know as you’re reading the characters shouldn’t open? Ruby and Simon open it, of course.

Still, if you can get past the refusal of adult mentors to share vital information and the stupidity of the main characters in going where they ought not to go, it really is a great story. Readalikes are Savvy by Ingrid Law, The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and perhaps 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. At least, those are the books I was reminded of as I read The Storm Makers. Some budding young scientists may also want to read more nonfiction about weather and how it works after reading The Storm Makers. I’d suggest: