book review: the testing

The Testing is Joelle Charbonneau’s Hunger Games clone. Young people from post-devastation colonies are selected to compete for spots in the government’s university, like some juiced up Gaokao. The testers are sadistic and the tests have consequences.

It wasn’t badly written, but I can only recommend it to people who liked the Hunger Games and dislike novelty. Oh! Here’s a difference: The female protagonist is only in love with one boy. I guess that makes it un-Hunger Gamesish.

book review: homeland

I will confess that I put off reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for months simply because the story opens at Burning Man. Back when it came out I bought it, put it on my ereader and read the first few pages and went Ugh. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s just the kind of book that needs to be read in summer. In any case this time I was ready for it and really liked the book.

Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, but in this one Marcus has graduated from high school and dropped out of university and is trying to get by in our modern economy, which gets him involved in politics. There are plot points about leaking politically sensitive materials and surveillance and hacking party politics to reflect what real people (or at least tech-savvy San Franciscans) care about. It’s pretty great, and sadly topical.

The topicality is a big part of what I like about this book. Aaron Swartz wrote the afterword and it’s great. The book did have a bunch of Doctorow’s essayistic explanatory tics (you read a lot about cold-brewed coffee in this book) but it feels more like a novel with excited explanations than a polemic with a plot. But there’s enough information in it to be inspiring.

It’s the kind of book I’d like lots of people to read, not just high school students. It was enough of a kick in the ass for me to finally root my old phone and install Tor on it, so if you measure a book by how it changes behaviour this was a good one.

book review: the name of the wind

I’ve been hearing about Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind for years it feels like, but maybe that’s just because I read the blogs of writers who are friends of his. It’s a good fantasy novel that reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game, or a less postmodern The Magicians.

This is the first volume in a series about Kvothe, who is now an innkeeper named Kote, but was once much more. There’s an elaborate framing device wherein Kote is telling his story, the true story, to a Chronicler over three days. This first book is the first day of the story, and covers his boyhood to attending the magickal university. In the frame though we know that the Skraelings are being seen again and that people in his chosen hideyhole are ill-prepared to deal with them.

It’s all well-told, even if young Kvothe is a showoff asshole who has to assert his superiority at every turn. It’s a self-aggrandizing tale even as the innkeeper is trying to tell it warts and all, which is less than exciting to me. I just have a bit less patience for stories of people who are so obviously “better” than everyone surrounding them. And the flaw of pride in being awesome is an annoying kind of flaw in my books. The gender politics are really traditional, and though there are a few interesting economic interactions in the society fuelled by magic, the world doesn’t feel that fantastical.

But whatever. The story is engrossing enough, and in the end of this volume the idea of encouraging Kote to tell the story of his old self as heroically as possible is revealed to be part of the larger tale, which I found intriguing (I am a sucker for metatextual elements, I guess). This’d be a great book for a reader who’s read the Ranger’s Apprentice series and wants something a bit more sophisticated (and isn’t put off by the word-count of the tome).

book review: the clockwork rocket

What I love about reading Greg Egan books is reading about creatures that are psychologically very recognizable but physically alien. In other books this comes through reading about robots and software, but The Clockwork Rocket is about a species of blobby aliens living in a universe where different colours of light have different speeds.

On their world there are male and female aliens that I picture as macroscopic amoeba type things. Reproduction means the female splits into four children (two males and two females who are brought up as “co”s brother-sisters but also as future mates), whom the father then raises. Yalda is a female who doesn’t have a co. She grows up on a farm and moves to a city and becomes a scientist and eventually leads an expedition away from their world to try and save it from an impending disaster (by using the weird properties of the speed of light in their universe).

There are digressions exploring the nature of light and toroidal universes in this book. Some people might not like them. I did. I also loved the political explorations of birth-control in a species where having children necessarily means the death of the mother. It’s very much an ideas book, and there are sequels, which I’ll definitely read eventually.

book review: level up

Gene Yang’s Level Up is a comic about videogames and “fulfilling your destiny.” The protagonist is basically deciding between the pleasurable life of videogames and eating bitterness (they’re an Asian family) and becoming a doctor to fulfill his parents’ dreams for him. In the end the negotiation is made quite well. It’s not just a simple “I’ve got to do my own thing!” kind of story, but is a story of the complexity involved in doing what you love.

Thien Pham’s art was a little cutesy for my taste (I much prefer the bolder stylings from Yang’s American Born Chinese, for example) but it gets the job done.

book review: singing the dogstar blues

Singing the Dogstar Blues by Alison Goodman was an interesting choice for our time-travel unit in my SFF course. Joss, the main character, is a first year cadet at a time-travel school who gets paired with the first alien to attend the school in a cultural exchange, but time-travel only features in the very last 20% of the book. Even then it’s the kind of time travel that’s just to sneakily grab some information before it was destroyed. Oh, um, spoiler alert?

Joss is a tough 17-year-old female protagonist (who’s been kicked out of a dozen schools), and her toughness comes through pretty well, but I kept on feeling she was written more as a precocious fourteen year old than someone actually in university. I probably just have a distorted view of it all.

The story’s pretty good, and isn’t as straight forward as it seemed at first glance (the time travel helped). It wasn’t amazing, but I’d be able to recommend it to certain types of readers. Readers of The Hunger Games would probably find this a bit fluffy.

book review: sanshiro

I will admit I knew nothing about Natsume Soseki’s classic Sanshiro when I bought it. I’d seen Soseki’s name at the library, but that’s about it. I bought this book, which is an early 20th century Japanese coming-of-age story, and read it because Haruki Murakami did the new introduction for the Penguin edition. It’s been a while since I’ve read a new Murakami book and I missed him. 1Q84 is probably going to take a long time to translate so I have to settle for introductions and essays and things. Or learn to read Japanese (a project which is proceeding slowly if at all).

Murakami’s draw to this book was more than just his name though. See, he has this history of preferring Western literature. In the books/essays about him that I’ve read he talked about not really caring about Japanese literature. So this introduction of a Japanese literary classic meant it must be something special. Or he’s changed his opinion in his old age. Whatever.

The book is about a young man, Sanshiro, who comes from the country to go to university in Tokyo. It’s Meiji-era Tokyo so there are streetcars and such, but people are still wearing kimonos and the trains are far from bullet-like. Sanshiro basically wanders around to his classes and falls in love with a woman and gets embroiled in his friend’s schemes. The floatingness of the protagonist did remind me of Norwegian Wood, and would have even if the comparison hadn’t been made in the introduction, I think.

It’s a good book. I enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’m rushing off to press into everyone’s hands. Just a quiet sitting under an elm tree watching a pond kind of book.