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.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Follow You Home by Mark Edwards

I birthed a little person recently. So reading is about as much a priority as wearing a shirt right now. However, I have a lot of "down" time in the form of rocking and feeding said little person. So a free book on my Kindle was in order. Enter Follow You Home. It was on my Kindle. It was free. I didn't have to wear a shirt. Done.

I got through this book in two days, which is record time for me. I don't know if that says more about the book or more about the amount of feeding and rocking I was doing in those two days. This psychological thriller is about two young travelers, Daniel and Laura, who are experiencing Europe, until they get to the scary, sinister part of Europe (that would be the eastern bit). There (in Romania), they experience the Thing That Must Not Be Spoken Of and quickly end their trip.

Back home in London, Daniel and Laura try to go about their daily lives. But their once close relationship dissolves as each spirals into their own living hell in trying to deal with What Happened.  As Daniel tries to get over the loss of Laura, he experiences strange things, things he can't help but wonder might be connected to the fateful trip. Meanwhile, Laura not only withdraws from Daniel, but her grasp on reality seems to be slipping away.

Two stories in one, Edwards slowly reveals what happened to Daniel and Laura in Romania while simultaneously unfolding the resulting horror they both encounter back home. He keeps you guessing, is it something supernatural? Is it something depraved? Something real? Something imagined? And he unfolds both stories in such a way that there were times (usually in the middle of the night) where I was too creeped out to read (and I still got done in two days!).

Overall, this book was a great package. It was quick, captivating, and a bit scary. I'd be interested to read more of Edwards' other thrillers, shirt or not.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Higher Call:An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos

This World War II story is written by an American war historian, Adam Makos. Makos finds a story so compelling, he fights his patriotic instincts and centers his story from the German perspective. A Higher Call highlights the life of Franz Stigler, a German fighter pilot ace. Framing his book around the so-called enemy, Makos wonders early in the book, can good men be found on both sides of a bad war?

Franz Stigler knew as a young boy he wanted to fly planes. His father taught him and his brother, August, how to fly small planes as young children. Franz eventually worked as a commercial pilot, and when WWII broke out, was recruited to teach Germans how to fly for the war.

Franz grew up in a Catholic family. During the 1930's, as Hitler's party rose to power, they cautiously watched and disagreed with the changes enacted by The Party. As Catholics, they fell under increased scrutiny, since the Pope spoke out against Hitler. August, in particular, who was dating a church official's daughter, could potentially bring the magnifying glass onto the family. In a way, Franz had a way out, having been excommunicated from the church for sword fighting.

But this official disownment of Franz on the Church's part was only one sided. Franz continued to quietly practice his faith, even making sure he always had his rosary for every mission he flew, as this became his inevitable path working for the German air force.

If you're wondering how Franz could be in the German air force during Hitler's dictatorship, if he wasn't a member of, or even supportive of the Nazi party, this was more the rule than the exception. German fighters fought for their country, not for Hitler. They prided themselves on being neutral, politically, and resented Hitler's eventual efforts to infiltrate to military with his own spies in an effort to squash dissention to The Party.

This neutrality could be taken a step further in the code Franz was taught, to down foreign planes, but not kill pilots if they ejected. This code would be brought to the forefront when an American bomber, piloted by Charlie Brown, was shot down by German fighters. The B-17 was on its first mission, flying in formation in the unfortunate position known as "Purple Heart Corner." As the bomber descended in its inevitable demise, struggling to stay airborne as it tried to leave Germany, Brown and his injured crew found they couldn't shake one German fighter. But strangely, the fighter didn't fire on them. Assuming it was out of ammo, they still couldn't explain why the fighter flew alongside the bomber's wing, taking it safely across a German flak zone.

The mystery would remain with Brown, who eventually sought out the mystery pilot decades later and learned about Franz, his amazing life, and his even more amazing code of honor.

Makos slowly helps us understand how Franz got to this point. For in the beginning, his main focus was on downing as many planes as possible and getting the coveted Knight's Cross commendation for fighter pilots. In the beginning, it was the numbers that motivated him. But as Franz neared the end of his career, something greater took over, and the numbers fell by the wayside when Franz found himself a part of an elite, yet ill-regarded unit of German fighters. Under the command of a man whom Hitler wanted to keep out of the way, this new unit was given little resources and little hope for success. But their willingness to continue to fight successfully for Germany ended up being their silent protest against Hitler and General Goring, the controversial commander in chief of the German Air Force.

This book provides not only an interesting, alternate view of WWII, but also a great story that was covered up by the American Air Force for years. A solid recommend.