Monday, April 2, 2012

Mini Reviews

I was cracking up as I read this brief but brilliant volume.  The scenario of an older sibling being jealous of a new sibling is familiar enough, as is the precocious child character.  But the novel takes unexpected and hilarious turns as the baby ends up being a gateway between dimensions which aliens slip through.  Thaddeus hopes that this will mean an exciting apocalyptic confrontation but they turn out to be "Missionaries of smiles and happy feelings" and even when he kills one of them, they just forgive him.  One of my favorite panels is one of Thaddeus sitting in time out after calling his sister dumb.  The caption reads "Thaddeus K. Fong: Martyr for Truth"  and while most 8 year olds probably wouldn't use the word 'martyr' the childish sense of keen injustice over the incident is spot-on.  Other details like Thaddeus's goal of having a facial hair style named after him (and drawing it on with marker while he waits for hair to grow) and the aliens' fascination with Connan O'Brien kept me laughing the whole time.  Anyone who enjoys reading about precocious evil geniuses and is looking for something quick to make them laugh will enjoy this comic.  Even though the main character is eight though I'd save it for middle schoolers at least.
Prime Baby by Gene Luen Yang: Buy it or check it out today!

I love this series (see my review of the first book here) that puts a twist on the alternate Victorian societies brimming with magic so popular in fiction right now by setting the story in America. This novel spend more time beyond the magical barrier over the Mississippi that keeps dangerous magical animals at bay so it has the feel of a magical western and I loved it.  While this one covers a shorter period than the previous novel, it still isn't terribly fast-paced.  A lot of the novel is Eff weighing decisions and thinking about what she should do which is part of why I like it, but will put fans of more fast-paced adventures off.  Really the main draw here is the excellent world-building.  I was always eager for more details of how magic has influenced this version of the United States.  Despite all the magic the tones remains one of a western more than a high fantasy with unique folksy phrases like "It'd take a blind prairie skunk all of ten minutes to see that the plans in your family have always been about Lan" peppered throughout and a general no-nonsense frontier style and realistic settler concerns.  Eff remains a strong lead more concerned about a future involving adventure beyond the barrier than settling down and finding a husband.  Even without a nail-biting plot my interest in the world and affinity for Eff were enough to keep me turning the pages so that I finished in less than twenty four hours.  Anyone as intrigued by the idea of a magical western as I should pick up the first book and this second won't disappoint fans of the first.  I'm eagerly awaiting the third.
Across the Great Barrier by Patricia C. Wrede: Buy it or check it out today!

 I read this while looking for a short story to read to a 5th grade class to kick off a mini unit on the history of science fiction literature.  My intent was to quickly skim the stories to find one that would make a good read aloud (and this is what I did with most of the other collections I looked through) but this one managed to grab me and I read it cover to cover in one evening.  It's rare for me to find a story collection by various authors where I don't skip a single one which is why I was so surprised that I enjoyed all the stories in this book.  Unlike many of the science fiction collections I read these were stories aimed at young adults with teen characters which made it great for my purposes and wonderful as an introduction to the genre for teens.  The stories were wide ranging in their settings, topics, and tones but fit well together.  I enjoyed the references to Winnie-the-Pooh, Where the Wild Things Are, and Icarus in the stories but I appreciated the lessons learned by the relatable teen characters even more.  While some of these stories might not fit Asimov's ideal of science fiction being based on solid science fact it does meet the more important, at least to me, criteria Asimov himself used when defining the genre as "That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings." ( from "Modern Science Fiction," edited by Reginald Bretnor, 1953)
A Starfarer's Dozen edited by Michael Stearns: Buy it (used) or check it out today!

The Martian Chronicles I brought this home to skim for stories as well, but even after I chose one from the above collection I returned to this book to re-read.  The first time I read it was in 7th grade and while I remember loving it, I did not remember any of the details, except for the story "There Will Come Soft Rains."  What struck me most about the novel this time around was its contradictions.  In many ways, despite its being published 65 years ago it still seemed fresh and futuristic to me.  Many of the questions it grapples with are relevant today and if you ignore the chapter headings describing the action as mostly taking place form 1999-2005, it has the feel of the not-so-distant future even in 2011.  On the other hand, its focus on atomic war and its failure to predict the civil rights and women's liberation movements mark it clearly as being written in 1946.  Its female characters leave a lot to be desired. (In fact I found the story "The Silent Towns" mildly offensive with its description of an overweight marriage-obsessed woman scaring off the only man left on Mars.)  Most of the colonists of Mars are Americans and there is an admiration for the American pioneer spirit while displaying clear disgust at the kind of jingoistic patriotism that leads many of these pioneers to completely disregard or even actively destroy what remains of the Martian culture that came before them.  Many of the stories are downright chilling and the story "Usher II" makes the influence of Poe on the work explicit, but among all the horrible things that happen are stories and characters that give the reader reason to hope and the novel ends on a comparatively optimistic note.  I think it's these contradictions that make The Martian Chronicles so compelling even after all this time.
On a more personal note, re-reading "There Will Come Soft Rains" made me wonder why, out of all the stories, that one had such an impact on me.  Why I remembered it so clearly while I forgot the rest entirely.  In a novel that describes not one but two apocalypses and many individual deaths it seems odd that a story about a house without any human or alien characters would affect me so.  Yet this time around I found myself under its spell again.  Perhaps it's because of how lonely the house seems without its residents and how it valiantly carries on for so long.  Perhaps it's the description of the outlines of the family members left on the side of the house after the blast.  Perhaps it's the way the house screams poetry to the last and fights and refuses to go gently into that good night.  It may even be the poem itself, the one the story gets its name from, and the very idea that humanity could not only be gone but completely forgotten that turned my 7th grade world upside-down.  For whatever the reason, it was this story of oblivion that haunted me more than all of the other stories of death and destruction combined.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury: Buy it or check it out today!

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