Friday, April 27, 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey

So apparently I forgot to review 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. No idea how that happened; I thought it was an amazing book. Nothing else I've ever read managed to convey the sheer sense of awe and longing that fills me when I contemplate the vast potentiality of the universe, nor the sense of impotent horror when confronted with the unforgiving void of space. The story starts on our own planet, but in a time so distant in the past that a human finding herself there would effectively feel an alien. We meet the ancestors of present humans and see an alien presence interact with them and give the primitive beings a push towards evolving. And then, millions of years later we're in modern times, excited and curious to learn more about some strange happenings on the moon, where there's now a colony. A strange monolith has been discovered, and an expedition is launched. That's where HAL 9000 comes in. Having only known about 2001 through pop cultural osmosis before this point, I had thought the entire book would be about the strangely doomed space expedition, but that's just one facet of the story. And I actually enjoyed the description of life aboard the Discovery One and the part about Jupiter more than the stuff with Hal, although I enjoyed the entire book. I used to be incredibly fascinated by space exploration when I was younger, and I still am. Thinking about it, Jupiter was the highlight of the book for me. But the book continues from there, with events with Hal coming to a head, and then onward to the final destination of Japetus and what's discovered there. Although I think any sort of definite ending would have been a slight let-down (human imagination is limited, and whatever an author speculates, however creative, can't quite compare to the sense of mystery and hidden wonders), what Clarke came up with grips the imagination as well as could be possible, giving an achingly vast sense of scale and emptiness of the universe, of strange wonders that we'll never experience but which could, possibly even must be out there.

I still need to watch the Kubrick flick, but if it's even half as good as the novel, it will be well worth it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Tomorrow Code

Brian Falkner's The Tomorrow Code is chilling YA sci-fi. The first time I read this book I remember staying up late to finish it because if I tried to sleep without reading the end, I knew I would be plagued with nightmares. This is a book with an agenda; the message of ecology and human meddling isn't hidden. However, the story is told well enough that this is actually very effective instead of being preachy.

Tane and Rebecca are two New Zealand teenagers who are both intellectually gifted. When Tane comes up with a hypothetical way to listen for messages sent from the future, Rebecca realizes it, and the two are shocked to find that such messages do exist - and their contents are chilling. Now the two of them, with Tane's brother, must figure out how to prevent the disaster to which the messages cryptically allude. Throw in some well-written YA relationship drama along with the science, and add a dash of post-apocalyptic horror, and you've got this book.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Wavering of Haruhi Suzumiya

As always, the writing and translation of these books blow me away. The Wavering of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa is the sixth book in the Haruhi series and another volume of short stories. First up is "Live Alive," which relates the events of the cultural festival for which the SOS Brigade filmed their movie. Kyon wanders the school looking for things to do and witnesses a most unique concert. We come to see just how much Haruhi has grown as a person since the beginning of the school year. This was always one of my favorite episodes in the anime, and it owes that to being based on a very solid, sweet story.

"The Adventures of Asahina Mikuru Episode 00" is next, and it is the story of the cultural festival movie, as narrated by Kyon. His narration is the only thing that makes this amusing, since, after all, the movie itself is supposed to suck. This one's a fun enough read, but I'd be highly surprised if it made anyone's short list of favorites. There's just not all that much to it. Although there is a conversation of veiled significance between Nagato and Koizumi which provides a little bit of interest.

"Love at First Sight" is a Nagato-centric tale. A former classmate of Kyon's has fallen in love with the alien bookworm at first sight and begs for Kyon to deliver a message. Said message leads to some cute comedy when Haruhi, of course, misunderstands, but soon the matter is put right and the brigade heads off to watch the admirer play a football game in hopes of impressing his beloved. The story is full of speculation about the nature of love and Nagato, and it overall is a good piece for characterization.

"Where Did The Cat Go?" beats out "The Adventures of Asahina Mikuru" and tops my list of absolute least favorite Haruhi stories. This one is boring and lacks any of the promised sense of mystery. I suppose it would be better to read it as another characterization piece, because that's where any of the redeeming value is. Plus, it does have Tsuruya, so that's something.

"The Melancholy of Mikuru Asahina" is the finale tale, and this one perhaps beats "Live Alive" as my favorite story in this volume. It's all about Kyon and Mikuru, with the other three brigade members only having incidental parts. Mikuru is usually only seen by Kyon, and thus the reader through his narration, as a cute moe mascot, but this time we get to see some sides of her which are usually hidden. There's a foreboding feel to the story which even the wacky final section doesn't quite mitigate.

The seventh volume doesn't come out until June, but it picks up where the last short story left off in theme. Overall, Wavering is a fun installment in the series and contains valuable information and characterization for any fan, not to be missed.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Little Women

I'm such a canon purist. I'm listening to the soundtrack for the musical adaptation of Little Women, and while the music is fun and spirited (and Sutton Foster is just, well, astonishing), what I have gleaned from the songs and the Wikipedia article shows me that the musical plays fast and loose with the particulars of the story. I guess that the musical is a bit too overstated for the quiet, humble tale that is the book. Well, I've not read the libretto, so perhaps not, but I'm left with reservations.

I don't know to which I was first exposed, the 1994 movie (which I recently bought online in a DVD sale and am eagerly awaiting since it is among the many, many titles lacking from Netflix's streaming library) or the Great Illustrated Classics version. I always liked the story, although I lamented that spoiled Amy shared my name rather than spirited Jo (because what girl wouldn't want to be like Jo?). A year or so ago I read the first volume of Little Women and was indignant to find that the library book I'd received didn't have the second part as well. At that point I didn't know that it was two books in the main story (yeah, I know there are two sequels as well). And the really good bits, the payoff only comes in part two.

The first book has the characters as girls, but now they're all young women and more complex. For one thing, I was extremely relieved and gratified by the character development Amy saw. For another, during the first part, you could see Laurie falling heavily for Jo, and, like Laurie, I, and probably plenty of other readers, thought he and Jo totally went together (I recall reading that Alcott totally ticked off the shippers in her own time by not having Jo and Laurie end up together). So when she turned him down, I knew what was coming, and I wasn't sure I'd buy it. No worries. The professor was introduced and developed in a charming fashion, and it became easy to see how well he and Jo complemented each other. And what I really enjoyed was in the home stretch of events leading up to the proposal (actually both sets of proposals in part two), how the romance was not overblown and dramatic, but simple and true, Jo with her awkwardness in the rain, Laurie's rowboat metaphor, things like that make the story all the more endearing. And if occasionally the moralizing seems a little trite to our modern sympathies, well, the sincerity of the work redeems it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Now this is good YA fantasy. Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns is an exciting and rewarding read. Start with a heroine, a shy, overweight princess who's also a chosen one and who is being married to a king she's never met. Throw in a surprising knowledge of tactics and the suggestion of hidden depths. Then add palace intrigue, prophecies, and magic, all in a setting based more on Spain than England, unlike a lot of fantasy novels. Basically, there's a lot going on here, and it's all well done. Elisa is a heroine you quickly come to root for. She grows, she learns about herself, and her weight doesn't end up defining her, while there's no magical beautification either. I started reading this with a bit of skepticism that it might be just another YA fantasy novel, but I quickly came to the point where I couldn't put it down. For everyone who wants a book that's not afraid to be different, check this out. Oh, and, yes, there is romance, but that's just another aspect that Carson handles deftly and realistically.