A believable dystopia: review of Feed

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Feed by M.T. Anderson

If you found the Hunger Games and Divergent far-fetched (and they are), Feed shows a dystopian novel that seems possible. In Feed, everyone is hooked up to a network that tracks their interests and purchases. It also allows them to chat and keep tabs on trends and memes. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The only difference from our current internet hookups (be it smartphone, tablet, or PC) is that this “feed” is hardwired directly into people’s brains. Talk about data mining.

The world of Feed is a logical extension of what’s already happening with smartphones tracking your every keystroke and transforming it in to data to be sold to marketers (or given to a spy agency.) Sure, the part about hooking into your cerebral cortex is a bit over the top. But that’s what really good dystopian fiction does, it takes something that’s already present and pushes it to the extreme.

At the start of the novel, Titus and a group of friends are going to the moon to party. And the guys are being. . . well pretty typical dumb teenage guys. Titus is trying to have fun even though he’s actually bored until he sees a girl who is different than anyone he’s met before. Violet hasn’t had the feed as long, and she’s a resister to the current system in some ways. Then, the group’s feed is hacked, and they are disconnected from the feed for a while, and then Violet’s feed starts to malfunction.

My biggest criticism of Feed is that the story between Titus and Violet is a bit simple even predictable, and I left the book feeling that a chance a true greatness had been missed. Still, I highly recommend Feed. I would read this novel for Anderson’s imagined world alone. The premise is fantastic and disturbing, and it’s incredible that he thought of it about ten years ago—and yet it’s still relevant and very disturbing today, perhaps even more so.

4_stars

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Four things Germans do better than Americans (or not)

As an American living in Berlin, I’ve noticed a few cultural differences.

by Markburger83 at English Wikipedia

by Markburger83 at English Wikipedia

It’s clear that Germans do some things better than Americans: free preschool, public transportation, beer festivals. . .

by astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander via Wikimedia Commons

by astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander via Wikimedia Commons

And some things Americans do better: fast Internet, customer service–oh and landing on the moon. . . (which some Germans don’t believe happened. . . that’s another story.)

But there are a few things about German culture that I’m totally ambivalent about. I really don’t know if I love them or hate them:

1. You can drink beer everywhere!

Good: There are no open container laws in Germany like there are in the U.S. Tell me again which one is the land of the free? You can bring a bottle of wine (or three) to a picnic in the park and not have to hide it. You can drink a beer on the train ride home from work or just walking down the street. But,

Bad: Wait, why are there so many drunk people all over the place?

2. Germans are less lawsuit-happy than Americans.

Good: There’s a greater sense of personal responsibility. Everyone is expected to obey the rules and watch out for themselves.

Bad: The sidewalks are super bumpy, and some playgrounds are downright terrifying. Then there’s that time a friend had a potential employer tell him that he was too old for a job–in writing. Don’t see that happening in the good ol’ litigious U.S. of A.

3. The Germans let it all hang out.

Good: They have less body shame, so you can change your clothes right on the beach, no biggie. You can sunbathe in the park al fresco if you want. On hot days, little kids are free to run around naked like the wild little animals they are.

Bad: For some reason, old, out-of-shape people seem to really love the whole nudity thing. I’ve seen enough naked elderly men to last me a lifetime. Sometimes, I could use a little less “all” hanging out, Danke.

4. Many Germans are bilingual.

Good: Almost every German knows a little English, which makes it pretty easy to get around, shop, eat out, ask people for directions, visit the doctor’s office, etc.

Bad: I haven’t been forced to learn German. (I’m trying. I really am! German is just so dang hard!) Many Germans are sympathetic to my American monolingual handicap. But not all. I was once lectured by a homeless person telling me I should learn German because I’m in Germany. He was speaking, of course, in English.

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Worth the tears: review of A Monster Calls

monster_callsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I don’t normally go for tear jerkers, but this one is well worth the crying. A Monster Calls is simply a stunning book. It doesn’t just aim for sadness; it tackles a difficult subject the death of a parent in a magical way without being maudlin, and it’s fabulously written and surprisingly entertaining.

Thirteen-year-old Conor lives alone with his mother who is dying of cancer. That setup alone made me afraid to pick up this book. But what makes A Monster Calls truly wonderful are the nightmares and the monster. (Yes, you read that right). A monster comes visiting Conor at key moments in his life, telling him odd stories and giving him odd powers. Conor is not afraid of the monster, like you might expect; he’s dealing with worse things. And the novel is about his journey to face those things.

Ness’ writing really draws you in, and doesn’t let go. If you have any doubts about picking up this book, read the first chapter and you’ll see what I mean. Ness’ talent is also obvious in his book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, but that story had some other issues.

A Monster Calls, on the other hand, is elegantly written and incredibly moving. The idea for the story was actually developed by Siobhan Dowd who was too ill with cancer herself to write it. That real life story is tragic enough. And the fictional story she came up with, and that Ness executes, will shake you.

It’s a hard fact of life that many children have to deal with the death of a parent, but this fictional story has some really powerful things to say about death and grief. You’ll be surprised and delighted by A Monster Calls even as it breaks your heart. I highly recommend it for adults as well as young adults.

5_stars

What sad books have you read that were worth the tears?

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Why I hate nature

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“Light as Air” by Joe Martin Photography via Creative Commons

I like to hike in the forest as much as anyone. I’ve been known to backpack, pick flowers, even eat granola on occasion. But make no mistake, I am not a nature lover. Sometimes I even hate nature because nature is out to kill me.

Nature is not all fuzzy kittens and rainbows (though it is those things too). Nature also includes hurricanes, this horrible parasite that burrows out from people’s skin, and a myriad of deadly viruses that no one quite understands. To quote one of my favorite fictional rants:

Nature is not kind; it is not good. Do you really think nature cares about any individual living thing?” 

“Nature is the force that propels bees to fly themselves to death just for the chance to mate with their queen. Nature is the anaconda that swallows a baby pig alive to be digested slowly and painfully over several days. Why is that necessary?”

“Sure, nature provides us with food and warmth, but it also makes volcanoes that burn forests, animals, and people alike; a tsunami that destroys everything in its path. Nature is both generous and destructive, beautiful and monstrous, but most of all nature is indifferent.”

That’s Grandpa Baumler speaking, the bad guy in my novel, The First. I should note here that Baumler isn’t exactly human. He goes on to argue that to save the world for his people, they must get rid of all the polluting humans. But he’s a bad guy, he’s got to take it over the top. Still, he has a point.

I hate the reductionist argument that pits ‘progress lovers’ vs. ‘nature lovers.’ No one could really love unaltered nature for itself; that would be insane. Do you love polio? How about arsenic? They’re all natural! Personally, I love vaccines, and even modern agriculture should get its due. Despite all its problems, it’s been key to feeding millions of people. I don’t love nature. I love nature that is adapted just enough to allow me (and humankind) live.

On the otherside, loving economic ‘progress’ with no constraints is equally insane. If we mess with nature too much, we poison the air, the water, or our own food supply, we’ll kill ourselves. (Of course, nature in the form of a giant asteroid or global infectious disease might kill us anyway, but really, do you want to force the issue?)

No matter what we do to the environment, short of blowing up the whole world, nature will survive, greatly changed, of course, but something will survive. And not just the inanimate part of nature but life too. It takes a lot to kill off all life. We can dump plastic into the oceans, make genetically modified everything, even throw a few massive nuclear bombs in the mix , and still something will survive, most likely in the form of cockroaches or bacteria. But humans won’t. Now that’s the point, and that’s what we should talk about when we talk about being an environmentalist.

We need to reign in pollution, not for nature’s sake but for our own sake. Because if we don’t, we won’t be part of the nature that survives. I know cockroaches are part of nature, but they’re awfully hard to love.

cockroachcc

Photo by Neil Turner via Creative Commons

What do you think? Am I crazy? How do you define environmentalism?

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American Gods and the absent Jesus

americangodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

Another fantastic book by Neil Gaiman. This one is very dark. (Definitely not intended for a YA audience.) The subject matter is also huge: Jesus, just look at the title! American Gods But that’s just the thing. There’s barely a mention of Jesus in a book with this title. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

This is a story about forgotten gods: the gods from the ‘old country’ which all immigrants brought with them to America and then abandoned. The main character named Shadow, devastated by the loss of his wife, falls under the sway of an old god who calls himself Wednesday. (You might guess here who he really is.) And Wednesday goes about recruiting other old gods for a war against the new American gods: namely those of technology, TV, and media. Score one for a great premise.

On the other side, Shadow as a character doesn’t have much of a will of his own, but with a name like that, perhaps he’s not meant to. Also, Gaiman has said that he meant this book to be sprawling, and it is. A bit too much. It isn’t very focused.

The biggest problem I had with American Gods was the absence of any direct discussion of the god who, right or wrong, really does hold some power in America: the Christian God/Jesus.

At first, I thought it was a fatal flaw in the story’s concept, (as a writer I might have put multiple Jesuses in the story, one for each different branch of American Christianity) But after some reflection, I think Gaiman is talking around Jesus on purpose.

All the other mythic gods have real elements of the Jesus story to them, and arguably, since they pre-date the Christian religion, the Jesus story is either based on them or deliberately stole elements of those myths (think the date of Christmas, Easter, or even the cross hanging death,  all of which are not original to the Jesus story).

One thing is clear about the American gods: they all demand sacrifice, and the bloodier the better. And Jesus knows, there’s not much worse than that cross.

Overall, I highly recommend American Gods. It’s a thought-provoking read.

4_stars

What do you think? Can you have a book called American Gods and not include Jesus? (And I’m talking in a literary sense; please no Bible banging. This is not the space for that.)

People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs. They conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that belief, that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.” American Gods

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Top 5 mistakes in the first 5 pages

(I used Grammarly to grammar check this post because they have an army of pixel sized pixies with tiny red pens, and if you stare really long at this post, then close your eyes, you can see them dancing. Whee!)

pen_nib_with_reflectionI read a lot of books. Let me rephrase: I start a lot of books. I’m a serial sampler, and I get a lot of book review requests, but I rarely get past the first five pages. I don’t like giving out bad news, but if it were me, I’d want to know . . .  so if you’ve put in a review request and haven’t heard from me, chances are it’s for one of these reasons:

1. Overwriting—By far the most common problem. If every sentence is “special,” the story gets bogged down. It’s like wading through a thick gooey molasses swamp of fabulous metaphors surrounded by thick forests of vicious adjectives being quickly chased by adverbs. Get it?

2. A bland opening—Please don’t talk about the weather, or chores, or waking up first thing in the morning. Good stories have tension, ideally from the very first sentence. Even if a book doesn’t have that grabber first line, I give it a few more pages, but if there’s no tension by page five, chances are it’s never going to pick up steam.

3. Unoriginal premise—The YA fantasy genre in particular is full of clichés and trends. I’ve already read the big hits. Show me something new! If you really have to write about vampires, werewolves, or angels, do it in a different way. And please no more mysterious cloaked strangers!

4. The deadly boring prologue—They can really hinder a reader who wants to dive into your story, especially if there’s a mysterious hooded figure in it. (See #3)

5. Unsympathetic characters—We all want to read about cool characters. That’s why we read sci-fi and fantasy, but if your better-than-human character has absolutely no flaws, it’s hard to care about them.

I hope this is helpful to my fellow writers . These issues can be caught in early drafts by a good writing group (preferably one that is not made up of relatives; we don’t want to encourage family strife!) We writers are sensitive beings, but we need a dose of reality now and then. My advice: take the criticism when it hits home, learn from it, and keep on writing!

What are your pet peeves in stories? What makes you put a book down after only five pages?

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Has Stephen King become too nice?

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

At first, I avoided reading this book, partly because I’d sworn of Stephen King and partly because I knew any book about stopping the Kennedy assassination was probably a baby boomer nostalgia fest. But the book landed in my lap—like a gift-wrapped brick—it’s friggin 880 pages! I picked it up and was immediately reminded why I’d loved King in the first place.

King was my writer hero for a long time. Whenever I think that a YA novel is too violent or scary for teens, I remember that I used to devour King books from about age 13 on. (Yes, I’m slightly scarred from it. Can’t get that image from The Raft out of my head to this day.) There’s something about King’s novels that really resonated with my teenage self, and given his popularity, with most of human kind. He lets us face look into the darkest pits of human terror from the relatively safety of a the living room couch.

But I gave him up after a while because his books had become bloated tomes. I’ll say it: King needs an editor, a really brave and honest one who can also wield a sledgehammer with the same head smashing accuracy as one of his characters does in this book.

King gets so many things right in 11/22/63: great well-drawn characters, an intriguing situation—if you had the opportunity to change history would you do it? And how much would you sacrifice to do it? He re-creates a very real world of the past and even branches into a bit of sci-fi speculation about what it would mean to change the future.

Naturally, he also gets the darkness right–He is the master of horror after all–but there’s far too much sunshine in this book. By that I mean, he’s too nice to his characters. He let’s his main character Jack live in the glory days of the early sixties for too long. He becomes a successful teacher, changes kids lives, finds love–and there’s scene after scene of this. Yes, I know King is setting him up for a fall, but my he takes his sweet time getting there. This is where the sledgehammer edit should have come. He should have lost three to four chapters worth of the fluffy cream in the middle.

Still though, 11/22/63 is well worth the wading through extra fluff, and I can’t help but recommend it highly. Because even after the some hundred stories he has written, King still has some interesting things to say about human nature—and he’s still one hell of a storyteller.

4_stars

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