Friday, October 7, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling, and John Tiffany

This is a tough one...I loved the Harry Potter books but this isn't technically an 8th book, because we all know Rowling said she was done with the books. So she came up with a new story for a theater production and the screenplay was printed in book format.

So first, let's sort out who actually wrote what. From what I can surmise, the story is a collaborative work by Rowling, Thorne, and Tiffany. But the screenplay itself was written by Jack Thorne.

So what to do. It's not technically a novel, is it? And because it's not, my expectations are slightly different, perhaps even lower. So where to start? Maybe at the beginning.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. Okay, maybe we'll fast forward a bit and start at the beginning of this tale, as much as I'd like to recap all the books. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes place about 20 years after book 7 ends. Harry is married to Ginny and together they have 3 kids. The story focuses on Harry's middle child, Albus Severus, who is having trouble adjusting to wizarding life at Hogwarts. Of course, we learn of larger issues in the wizarding world as well. For after what seemed to be a fairly peaceful time in the wizarding world, signs of change are on the horizon. The story evolves into a complex tapestry, weaving this way and that, and even turning back on itself. This is because The Cursed Child involves time travel, which isn't my favorite story-telling device. But I was able to overlook that.

The good? Rowling was involved in writing the story. And she is great at good versus evil. The tale is strong, dark, and continues the themes of her previous books. You get Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, and a lot of other characters we know and love (although some just have quick cameos). She is even able to bring back some beloved characters that have not made it (at least in the world of the living) to this point, and she is able to do it organically and in a way that makes sense to the story.

The bad? It's a screenplay, so you lose a lot of the narrative and background you get with a novel. This is a huge pitfall, perhaps bordering on the ugly. Transitions that are better made in theater with music and lighting changes are not fully realized by reading the script alone. So going from scene to scene is a bit of a bumpy road. I also feel the story depends almost to a fault on the fact that you are familiar with the Potter books, While this is a bit of a given, even with the books, Rowling is able to remind us gently of certain things, either with a memory, a conversation, or a description. But with The Cursed Child, there are time and format limitations that result in certain things, like Albus' first few years at Hogwarts, for instance, being handled like a Fantasyland ride. (If you're not familiar with this story-telling device courtesy of Disneyland, it goes something like this: Snow White's Scary Adventures - quaint cottage. Snow White. Dwarves! Spooky woods. Pretty witch. A mine! Ugly witch. Scary woods. Witch at door. Dwarves!..and witch on mountain. Happy music. The end).

If you approach the Cursed Child as a Harry Potter book 8, you'll be disappointed. It will remind you of how wonderful Rowling's books were to read and made you wonder how much more information we could have obtained if this were a fully realized novel. If you approach it for what it is, a special peek into the theater production, you'll find that the show will be amazing with a lot of special effects and a fun story. I'd really only recommend the screenplay to people who don't expect to see the play but want to know the next canonical story in the Potterverse. For everyone else, I'd suggest seeing the play instead.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Here's a bit of 80's pop culture/classic gamer porn for those of you who are into that kind of thing. It's a bit over the top complicated but fun nonetheless.

The year is 2044 and the internet has evolved into the OASIS. This is basically where everyone goes when they go online, and depending on your gear, you'll wear wear haptic gloves, a head visor, and maybe even a haptic suit. While the OASIS was originally created as a gaming environment, it evolved into meeting places (or planets) for any interest you may have. Kids can even attend school on the OASIS from the comfort (or discomfort as it may be) of their homes (for reasons not really explored, the world sucks and people live in mobile homes stacked dozens high in basically lawless societies). 

The story is told from the perspective of Wade Watts, a high schooler who pretty much lives in the OASIS and goes by the name Parzival. When the creator of the OASIS, (who was born in the 1970's) dies, he leaves his vast fortune to whoever can discover an easter egg he has left behind. Egg hunters, or gunters as they became known, begin their quest, but after years of searching, no one is able to unlock the first of three gates that lead to the egg. Until Parzival makes a breakthrough. 

The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, was a big 80's fan and so his clues reference pop culture from the 80's. Gunters research Halliday and the 80's, creating grail diaries and training to find the egg, which includes watching movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail enough times to quote every line from memory, or playing classic games like Adventure so many times it can be beat on one life. The actual tasks that must be performed to obtain keys to gates and clear the gates is a bit convoluted, but the story is entertaining. 

Interestingly, the basic premise of this book is similar to the book I read just before it, Lock In, by John Scalzi, an author who is referenced in Ready Player One. And like Lock In, I found the premise intriguing. Whether you care about videogames or the 80's as much as Wade doesn't matter. You'll become entrentched in the story and world Cline has created.

Also interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the 2016 version of the book is published with fan fiction written by Andy Weir (of The Martian fame). The short story is a prequel and now considered a legitimate part of Ready Player One. You can read it here.

Also also interestingly, (and again according to Wikipedia), Cline himself included an easter egg in the book, the winner being awarded a Deloreon in 2012. That's pretty cool and I think my rating for this book just jumped a bit higher.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Lock In by John Scalzi

What's the best thing that can come from a debilitating illness that renders your body useless? The internet, of course, and a bit of sci-fi neural networking voo-dooery.

Which brings us to our story and a future where people are "locked" in by Haden's syndrome. While most people affected by this illness just experience flu-like symptoms, a small percentage of those afflicted suffer complete physical, but not mental, paralysis. Technology has allowed these individuals, known as "Hadens", to live productive lives via brain downloads (or something like that). But not only can Hadens access the internet, they can download into mechanical avatars, known as "threeps" that allow them to operate in the real world, interacting with people and even holding jobs. Some Hadens don't choose to live in mechanical bodies, but rather live virtual lives only (my brain kind of exploded trying to imagine that).

This is the reality and backdrop of Scalzi's murder mystery. I can't really recall the details of the mystery part of the novel, but that's not what I found intriguing.  The logistics of downloading into threep, then deciding you need to interview someone in another state and downloading into a different threep within minutes, all while your body lay motionless in a room somewhere was fascinating. Life in a threep also gives rise to certain possibilities, like not feeling pain if you so choose, or being virtually indestructible (depending on your threep's capabilities). And this is the just tip of the iceberg.

Scalzi's writing made it easy for me to buy into his premise and, while I wasn't really interested in the murder mystery part of the story, the reality in which everyone operated was fascinating to experience.

I could go on, but I'll just say I enjoyed this book and found the premise new (I'll admit, I don't read a lot of sci-fi). It was entertaining and just realistic enough that I could envision a world in the not-so-far future similar to Scalzi's.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Drowning Game by LS Hawker

Gah! This book isn't on wikipedia so I can't refresh my memory.

Yes, another overdue review. And it seems this one will be very quick.

This is basically an action novel with an ass-kicking protagonist who is both on the run and in search of answers. Petty Moshen is 21 and experiencing her first dose of freedom after her overly-protective father's death. Raised as a shut-in, Petty learned from her father a very particular set of skills. Upon her father's death, she stands to inherit his wealth, under one condition. And that condition is unthinkable.

GDit all I can't remember exactly what the twists and turns were in this book, but according to Goodreads they are there aplenty. And I can't comment on the ending because I can't remember for the life of me what it was. Don't take the fact that I can't remember anything as evidence that it's a sucky book. My memory is pretty much like this for everything I read and watch. Which is one of the reasons I started my blog. No. The irony is not lost on me.

What I do remember is that I read the book straight through, not literally, but without reading other books in-between (which is a way of saying I enjoyed the book). I didn't feel the story was terribly realistic, but given this acceptance, I was along for the ride. It wasn't life-changing, but an okay way to spend my time. No regrets, but no rave review either.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Martian by Andy Weir

This is an old review, and it will probably show. What I remember about this book is really more of what I remember from the move, tbh. One thing I CAN tell you is that I was turned on to this book by my husband who recently got his Kindle and was only reading free or 99 cent books, 'cause he's cheap. Anyway, The Martian was one of them. That's OG, y'all. 'Cause I can tell you right now this book 'aint free no mo.

That also tells you how overdue this review is.

Basically, if you haven't heard, The Martian is about an astronaut who is stranded on Mars and has to science his own survival. We're talking shelter, food, and water, for over a year. So a single guy on a desolate planet for over a year....seems like a snooze fest, I know. But think about this, Weir's book was initially published a chapter at a time for free on his website, then published for kindle due to popular demand for 99 cents, then things...then a movie starring Matt Damon. As my boss likes to say in otherwise routine emails, boom!

So what's the deal? Weir's writing is witty and humorous. Not to mention meticulously researched. Although there is a lot of science and technology involved in the story, Weir, through his character Mark Whatney, brings it down to human level in a funny and understandable way. It's one of those books with a lot of read-out-loud and quotable lines, none of which I can either read out loud or quote right now. But just another reason why you should read this book (now on Kindle for $8.99, suckers).

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

"How can ghosts be in your head?" my four-year-old asked me one day. I had been talking to my husband about this book, and my son overheard me. "Uhhh..." I began. How do you explain something like that to a kid? I tried my best with a preschool explanation of this book's title, all the while realizing that for many people, the topics in this book are not abstract at all, but disturbingly real.

While not a ghost story, this book is frightening. Told from the perspective of Merry Barrett, in her early twenties in the present day, the heart of this tale occurs fifteen years earlier, when Merry is 8. It is at this time that Merry's 14 year-old sister, Marjorie, spirals into darkness. Once Merry's playmate and confidant, Marjorie changes, her behavior turning more and more menacing. Stories Marjorie once made up of friendly animals turn to stories of monsters and death. Normal sisterly playtime is replaced with cryptic notes and nightly visits by Marjorie to Merry's bedroom as she sleeps. Although Merry keeps these things to herself, her parents take notice as well. Merry's mother believes Marjorie is sick and needs the help of medical and psychological doctors. Merry's father, however, seeks spiritual guidance.

What seems like any family, yours or mine, suddenly seems like any family you'd rather not be. Trembley writes the Barretts in such an accessible way, driving home the delicate balance upon which all our lives hang. The contrast between the sweet innocence of young Merry and the shocking devlishness of Marjorie is written so well, you'll find yourself as afraid as poor Merry was of what Marjorie will do next.

The story tilts toward the hyperrealistic side when Tremblay introduces an element that unfortunately is becoming all too familiar, reality TV. In a desperate attempt to save Marjorie, Merry's father teams with a production company to televise the family's life as they prepare to perform an exorcism. Yes. I said exorcism.

If this makes you want to check out, don't let it. It's not clear one way or another if Marjorie has schizophrenia or is in fact possessed. Regardless of the true diagnosis, the fact that both possibilities could present themselves similarly is what's truly terrifying and intriguing about this story.

There are a lot of angles in this book, and it keeps the story dynamic. Whether you relate with Merry as a child or an adult, or with her mother, father, or even Marjorie, you'll be just as eager to see everything unfold as if you were watching the family on reality television yourself (but because it's a book, it's even better!).

Definitely a solid recommend, I couldn't put it down.

And I hope that's a better explanation of the book than I gave my son.

Monday, January 18, 2016

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

Going Clear is about the enigma that is Scientology, a religion marketed to the wealthy and famous who can afford undergoing years of auditing sessions. It's a secretive religion that unfolds information in stages, making the stranger tenets of Scientology more palatable after acclimating one's mind to less shocking, but priming "truths." As a newer religion (founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the mid 1950's), Scientology has recent history to its detriment. And it is this with which Wright begins...the story of L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, who wanted to leave a permanent mark on history.

Wright digs into Hubbard's past, including his military service, revealing how Hubbard's claims as a war hero (among other things) are at odds with archival data. Wright also explains how Scientology began as a group of Hubbard's followers roaming the high seas (yes, you read that correctly). Hubbard and his followers traveled around the world, looking for a place to build his church and avoiding others that wanted nothing to do with his new movement. This history is why today, the top level of Scientologists are considered a part of the "Sea Org."

Scientology eventually settled, ending up with Los Angeles as one of his church's hubs, complete with a celebrity center that caters to stars like John Travolta, Kirstie Allie, and most famously, Tom Cruise. While a celebrity endorsement of the church is great advertising, you have to wonder what kind of damage the church can do to a public individual, whose deepest darkest secrets are memorialized via auditing sessions, which are a kind of confessional/therapy session involving a lie detector made with two metal cans.

In discussing Hubbard and the Church, Wright alleges abuses by the church's top level leaders, including the church's current leader, David Miscavige. We are talking serious stuff, like Miscagive physically assaulting people with little provocation, or hazing people using tactics reminiscent of my college years, and worse. Some things are almost too crazy sounding to be true, but then again, we are talking about people who believe they were banished to earth by the dark Lord Xenu, or some such shit.

Among some of the church's more infamous headlines is the decades long battle between the church and the IRS. While the IRS went after the church for unpaid taxes, the church hired private investigators and whistle-blowers to harass the IRS. Eventually, Miscavage negotiated tax-exemption status for Scientology, in exchange for agreeing to withdraw the many lawsuits and forms of harassment Scientology laid against the IRS. This important decision by the IRS was a big win for the church financially, and also culturally. Despite decades of perceived illegitimacy around the world, the US Government now recognized Scientology as an organized religion (that's why I call it a religion, not a "religion," because the IRS said so). Praise be to Hubbard.

The Church also launched Operation Snow White in the 70's. The goal of this secret operation was to infiltrate government offices and purge any documents that were disparaging to Scientology. This operation involved more than 30 countries and reads like a spy novel. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this whole Snow White thing was starting to make me look at my tin foil in a new way.

While Going Clear gives a lot of insight into the workings of the church and its leadership, I felt it lacking in the actual meat and bones of the Scientology doctrine. I was hoping for more accounts of what a Scientologist undergoes during auditing, or what gatherings of Scientologists are like...are there sermons about reincarnation and how to fight off suppressive persons? What do Scientologists bring to a potluck? Do you still have to get a flu shot after going clear? Do Scientologists secretely giggle when they hear the word, "Xenu?" While some of these things are touched upon in Going Clear, I'm guessing you can read one of the many books written by former Scientologists to get more detailed info.

One thing to keep in mind, this book is very one-sided. It's not an unbiased presentation of Scientology. Rather, Wright uses information from former Scientologists. While he attempts to meet with church leadership (including Miscavage) to tell their side of the story, a lot of the information he gives in their "defense" is a simple statement such as "the church denies x and y" or something to that effect. That's not all Wright's fault, however. He explains that, understandably, the church wasn't the most willing participant in his writing endeavor. And while he provides some information the church gives to refute certain things, a lot of it comes down to a he said/she said account, which appropriately, I guess you just have to take on faith.