Tag Archives: sci-fi

So You Want to Be A Jedi: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back by Adam Gidwitz

soyouwantobeajediSo You Want to Be A Jedi: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back by Adam Gidwitz, with original concept arts

Really enjoyed much of the book — many of the Jedi lessons are great fun and with the trade-mark Gidwitz caring for a young person’s mind and character. The second person narrative device worked for me and the added extended training segments made me happy. The third person narrative parts about Han & Leia are faithful to the movie but to someone like me who saw the original movie and re-watched it a few times in the past few decades, they can seem a bit bland. I could tell that the imagined audience is actually those who’re young and not exactly familiar with Episode V. Waiting to hear from my 4th & 5th graders of their view.

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The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

threebodyproblem The Three Body Problem (三体)by Liu Cixin(刘慈忻),translated by Ken Liu

This is a rare experience for me since my encounters with Science Fiction tend to be on the “soft sci-fi” end: where the details of the science employed by the authors are often quite flexible to suit the narrative needs of the tale.  This is Hard Science Fiction and I was absolutely fascinated (even while I didn’t quite understand them) by the explanation of the Three-Body physics problem, the unfolding of protons into various dimensional modules, and how radio waves are delivered and received, etc. However, what compelled me to keep on reading was the realistic and unflinching depiction of the story’s backdrop (from Cultural Revolution era to contemporary China,) the underlying multiple and somewhat conflicting philosophies about human nature, the life story and struggles of one of the main female characters, and the kinship I feel with a specific type of online gaming.

The author honestly and boldly laid out the views of his characters (and one can choose to side with or against whichever view) and the translator faithfully captured and presented the analytical and yet deeply emotional landscape of the story.

Let’s celebrate this book’s 2015 Hugo Award win for being a solid hard science fiction and for being the very first Hugo novel winner penned by an Asian author.

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The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

alexcrowThe Alex Crow by Andrew Smith was a baffling read from the beginning to the very end.  Baffling but fascinating, engaging, engrossing, moving, and thrilling. I didn’t know where the story was heading and in the end, I wasn’t quite sure where I have been: spanning time and space, from the icy pole in the 1800s to the summer heat of an American summer camp now (?) — encountering the Melting Man (literally,) the refugee boy, the eccentric scientists, the Dumpling Man, and many others.  Or even where we eventually arrived — are we to be pleased with Ariel’s final situation, bonded with his adopted brother and their new found friend, no longer being closely monitored?  Are we to continuously be paranoid of how our lives might be closely examined by unknown forces and crazy scientists?  At least I know to unconditionally love Ariel for his intelligence and compassion.

Since earlier this year’s brouhaha about Andrew Smith’s “lacking” in inclusion of positive female characters in his work, I couldn’t help but noticing that in this book the readers only encounter two real life women: one is a completely ineffective mother figure and the other is a terrifying scientist whose goal is to eliminate all males from the human species.  (I’m not counting the two imaginary women in the Melting Man’s schizophrenic head.)

Of course, introducing compassionate and caring characters (male or female) will result in a completely different story: one that simply wouldn’t have been as brutal to such extreme and thus wouldn’t have had the same level of impact.  If the point is to portray a world for Ariel and his buddies to “survive” in without the physical or emotional support of kind souls, Smith succeeded brilliantly.

And I must mention his ability to effortlessly switch into drastically different narrative voices!  A skilled writer, indeed!

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Chew (Series) by John Layman & Rob Guillory

Taster's Choice (Chew, Vol. 1)

Chew by John Layman, artwork by Rob Guillory

Not for the faint of heart or queasy of tummy. There are laugh-out-loud scenes and almost-puke-my-guts-out scenes. Definitely cannot read this and have a meal at the same time.

Since 2009, the series creative duo, Layman & Guillory, have brought us 50 installments and 10 collective volumes (August 2015) of this bizarre tale of a Chinese American FDA detective Tony Chu with a superhuman ability: Tony can bite into any once living organism and have vivid “recollection” of the scenes in that living organism’s life, including the circumstances surrounding its death.  So, when he arrived on a murder scene, he is required to take a bite out of the corpse…   But, wait, others also have strange abilities like, a food critic able to write reviews that make the readers actually “taste” the meal (including the terrible ones), a chocolate sculptor who can recreate any landmark in 100% accurate details, etc.

And then you have the U.S. Government’s top secret weapon, Poyo, a rooster with nuclear weapon power, other political conspiracies involving NASA and the aliens they deal with, and enough family and love drama to satisfy any soap opera aficionado. Yup.  A crazy smorgasbord of gross but hilarious scenarios.  I absolutely adore this series and can’t wait to read the rest of the collected volumes (planned 12, by mid-2016.)

One of the main reasons that I love Chew is my fondness of Guillory’s artistic style.  And now I think of it, the series definitely fits #weneeddiversebooks movement very well — for older teens.

Meet the artist, Rob Guillory:

robguilloryphoto

And Meet Tony Chu:

meettonyAnd see some of the unusual scenes for yourself:

chewspecial chewcovers chewweirdwedding

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Firefight

firefight Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (Reckoners, #2)

This second book in the Reckoners series reads like a complete story — with it central villain(s) being dealt with by the last chapter and secrets revealed. It also sets up the next book nicely, because those secrets will propel the conflict into grander scales. A thoroughly enjoyable book that did not go beyond my expectations, even when some “shocking truths” are exposed. Perhaps because I have been binging on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as I read this book, and the two storylines share a lot of similarities especially when it comes to how the perceived good characters and those supposedly bad characters might turn out to be very different from what you have originally believed. So, I learned to mistrust all characters (even the narrator himself) until proven otherwise. This makes me wonder about the recent wild popularity of dystopian novels for young people and the central conflict rooted in a strong distrust of one’s government (or team, family, or friends, etc.)

I am all for critical thinking and questioning authority and demanding clear reasons and transparency when we are asked to behave in certain ways (and when we ask young people to follow certain rules and paths.) However, I often fear that we (as educators) are encouraging generations of young people to question everything every step of the way and mistrust those around them as the default form of interaction with the wider world. Once in a while, it would be so nice to simply just trust since I do believe that large portion of humanity is good.

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Life As We Knew It

lifeasweknewit by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I went into this book with a lot of trepidation — believe it or not, drastic gravitational changes to Earth by the altered distance between Moon and Earth was one of my all time environmental fears, probably from when I used to watch Twilight Zone as a kid. Pfeffer managed to tell the story with a pretty tame disaster setting: the town our heroine lived in has faced much milder impacts and although you hear about quite a bit of “the rest of world is disappearing and people have died everywhere,” you only experience her personal (and none of the immediate family members) losses a few times and the heroine’s reactions do not make the readers feel completely devastated. I thoroughly appreciated the author’s ability to show the shifting in priorities, attitudes, and family relationships as the story progresses.

This is a survival story that I can feel quite comfortable giving to 5th or 6th grade students, especially those who enjoy Hatchet.

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The Testing

thetesting by Joelle Charbonneau

I like this book partly because some of my students really took to the series and I can see why they love it. The different stages of the testing, the unflinching gruesomeness of certain deaths/acts, and the still unclear intentions of the Officials (and of some other characters’) at the end of the book (with a cliffhanger that makes you really want to read the next book) all make this a compelling and fast read. However, much of the book also feels quite derivative and pieced together from many other, better penned stories: Ender’s Game, Fahrenheit 451, The Enemy, or Battle Royale, that it probably will not be my top recommendation to some other students.

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The Player of Games

playerofgamesby Iain M. Banks

This second volume of The Culture series by Iain Banks kept me entranced throughout its sprawling telling of a brand new “universe” in my reading world.

Banks created a Utopian future where ownerships of objects, places, or people (as in, exclusive relationships) are no longer the norm and where sexual identities and preferences are all treated equal: in fact gender changes and and having partners in both genders are considered common place. In such a “Culture,” how do people entertain themselves and what matters and what matters not? Fun questions to ponder and explore. However, most of the story was set in the off world of Asad which bears similarities to our own human world — or perhaps the more barbaric ages of our world. Asad’s social structure is highly organized around rules and punishments — and there are some very cruel ways that criminals are dealt with (also what constitutes a “crime” can be quite shocking.)

I enjoyed reading the many theories of how the games are constructed and played and the author kept me guessing as to what the outcome would be. Thanks to my role playing game friend Brian who introduced me to this book! I’m onward to the first book of the series: Considering Phlebas.

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Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

triggerwarning by Neil Gaiman

This is typical Gaiman: disturbing and unsettling little scenes, interesting observations of human natures, everything floating in between waking and dreaming. My favorite are the longer tales, “The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains,” “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” and “The Black Dog.” The first two are folk/fairy tale reimagined, while the last one is an American Gods’ short with Shadow’s adventures continuing. Another small dosage to hold us over for the sequel to American Gods? Calendar of Tales with its many weird crowd sourced tales is also highly enjoyable. Oh, I can’t wait to actually WATCH a special episode (of the 11th doctor and Amy Pond) made based on “Nothing O’Clock.”

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The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Even though there were passages and descriptions that are overly lengthy, as a whole, the story moves at an effective and at times breathless pace. Highly affecting! I am so impressed with how it set up so many prototypes, from physical descriptions to potential advanced technologies, for modern alien/alien invasion stories. A real classic!

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Grasshopper Jungle

grasshopperjungleby Andrew Smith

Genre(s): Sci-Fi, Horror

Basic Content Information: 17-year-old Austin from Iowa, our time, records the “history” of The End of the World when he and his best buddy Robbie Bree set off a chain of events that lead to the invasion of 6-foot-tall, hungry and horny, indestructible genetically engineered praying mantises that ravage and take over the human world.  The narrative is full of crude words and thoughts.  Austin is continuously horny, many of the characters are presented through the lens of their sexual behaviors, the descriptions of events are blunt and without the sense of bashfulness.  Austin is also in love with both his girlfriend Shannon and his best friend Robbie, who is openly gay.  There is much tenderness between Robbie and Austin.  There is much confusion and resentment but also acceptance and understanding amongst the main teen characters.  There is a lot of outlandish sci-fi elements that harken to the 50s horror B-Movies and the tone and Smith’s stylistic choices might remind readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing.   Most used words in the book: horny, semen, blood, fuck, eat, hungry, penis, and history — much discussion about how history gets to the truth and how it does not.

Edition: Paper Galley

Pub Date: February, 2014

Publisher: Dutton/Penguin

(I’m only recording the bare bone facts about the Young Adult Fiction titles I read in 2014 — Serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee means that I need to be quite cautious in expressing opinions on social media. The safest way is to not express specific reactions publicly. But I’d like to keep reporting the titles I encounter throughout the year. You can always follow the link to Goodreads to see other readers’ reviews.)

Click here for: Goodreads summary and other people’s reviews.

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Dangerous

dangerouscover by Shannon Hale

Genre(s): Sci-Fi, Romance, Thriller

Basic Content Information: We follow two main teen characters with a supporting cast of adults (from trustworthy, to uncertain to purely evil) into a futuristic world that does not seem too different from our own except that some scientific discoveries and advancements have led the humans to encounter alien materials and finally aliens themselves.  The story is narrated from Maisie’s (mixed-race White/Latina) first person point of view, mostly in past tense.  Maisie is the brain and eventually also the brawn behind most of the operations and actions.  Her off and on, slightly torturous romance with Wilder (Jonathan) is what I came to expect from a Shannon Hale novel – whether Fantasy, Graphic Novel, or now, a SciFi.  The book is divided into 3 parts and could have easily been expanded and milked into a trilogy – but we got the whole story in one shot instead.

Edition: Paper Galley

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

Publisher: Bloomsbury, USA

(I’m only recording the bare bone facts about the Young Adult Fiction titles I read in 2014 — Serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee means that I need to be quite cautious in expressing opinions on social media. The safest way is to not express specific reactions publicly. But I’d like to keep reporting the titles I encounter throughout the year. You can always follow the link to Goodreads to see other readers’ reviews.)

Click here for: Goodreads summary and other people’s reviews.

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Saga Volume 2

saga2

by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

Every bit as entertaining and thrilling as the first volume.  This one contains chapter 7 to chapter 12 — with beautifully rendered bloody and sexually explicit scenes.  What I reacted most strongly and favorably to are the cast of characters.  I hesitate to call them endearing (except for perhaps Marko and the Lying Cat) since many of them are so severely flawed and I probably will not want to deal with them in real life, but they definitely have sharply defined forms and the plot moves plausibly in accordance with their individual personalities.

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The Here and Now

hereandnow: Ann Brashares

Genre(s): Sci-fi, Mystery, Romance

Basic Content Information: Time Travelers from a devastated and plagued future back to our (Here/Now is May 2014, Tristate area) with the expressed desire to “fix the future” but as the protagonist (17-year-old Prenna) finds out, they are merely hiding in their new safe colony with stringent and suffocating rules. When an opportunity presents itself for Prenna to alter a current situation that will impact on her future, she goes for it with the help of her Time Native boyfriend. Notions of free will, choices, and sacrifices for one’s community are explored. Teen budding romance with physical ramifications are explored. Climate change, dirty and clean energies, and disease control are some scientific topics touched on in the book.

Edition: Netgalley

Pub Date: April 8, 2014

Publisher: Delacorte/Random House

(I’m only recording the bare bone facts about the Young Adult Fiction titles I read in 2014 — Serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee means that I need to be quite cautious in expressing opinions on social media. The safest way is to not express specific reactions publicly. But I’d like to keep reporting the titles I encounter throughout the year. You can always follow the link to Goodreads to see other readers’ reviews.)

Click here for: Goodreads summary and other people’s reviews.

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Saga, Vol. 1

saga by Brian K. Vaughan; artwork by Fiona Staples

The first six installments (chapters) of a supposed Space Opera definitely grabbed my attention and my heart. The world is ingeniously built, with interesting and outlandish “races” — I adore the reddish ghost girl who has only top half her body…. not quite sure how I feel about the computer monitor headed royalties… I hope the story unfolds with a lot of creativity and depth. My strong and enamored reaction to this book came largely from Fiona Staples’ lush artwork. I don’t feel like calling her just “the illustrator” because I feel that she did more than mere illustrating what’s given to her — but expanded and enhanced this fictional world and its inhabitants with grace. I look forward to the next volume!

Ah.. this is really not meant for children — even though I know quite a few of my younger teens have read this (on their own, not by my recommendation.)

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume One

leagueofextraordinarygentlemenby Allen Moore, Kevin O’Neill, Ben Dimagmaliw and Bill Oakley

The concept of bringing a lot of 19th century literary characters together to solve a mystery is definitely a fun one — although not unique, at least, not any more in an age of mash-up stories. I enjoyed spotting literary allusions and also learning more about characters or original stories that I was not familiar with. The art is superb. The section with all the Chinese dialog is actually fairly accurate. Kudos! I think I’ll go over all the panels more than once just to enjoy the artists’ talents. Another aspect that’s extraordinarily fun is how the whole thing is done in an 1898 serial publication style. All in all, worth my time!

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Dune

duneby Frank Herbert

I was much more impressed with the book during the reading of the book than after having finished it — largely due to my expectations of having something transcendent, something heart-felt, something truly world shattering that the journey might have led to than what actually transpires at the end.  I definitely liked the world building, the presentation of technology and training of various warrior/assassin types, and the drawing upon non-Euro-centric traditions in constructing the beliefs and social structures within the world of Dune.  (And the Sand Worms… are such cool Desert Dragons!)

With such a rich and realized world, in the end, the book is just a fairly standard story of a hero that’s born with amazing abilities who cannot escape the paths set up for him and who walks all the way to the end as destined and even though losing a few precious things along the way, there seems to be little to no effect on his person. Much of the plot is propelled and explained away with mysticism and basic political maneuvering. At a certain point, I muttered, “Paul’s better not succeeded in accomplishing this as he has planned…” — but, as always, he did. He managed to achieve all that he set out to do, from outwitting enemies, to changing the ways of a tradition, to earning back trust easily from his old pals. Yes, he did lose a son in the whole process — but his reaction? They would be able to create more heirs and the heirs will inherit the world.

The volume ends as the two generations of concubines having a short exchange where Paul’s mother assures Chani (his true love but not the proper empress) that even though they would never have the title during their lifetime, they will be remembered in history as “Wives”!! Woop-dee-doo! What an achievement!

Granted, it was created in early 1960s and perhaps Herbert was not trying to question science or future worlds as harshly as we might these days — I still couldn’t help but putting a 2013 lens on it.

I know I will not be reading the sequels any time soon.   I searched and read some book summaries of the two sequels — it seems that the question of lineage and political power play are even more centralized in the next two books. Definitely not too exciting for me!

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Smoke and Mirror

smokeandmirrors
by Neil Gaiman – read by Neil Gaiman

This is a short stories collection from 1998.  As I love Fragile Things and especially love how Gaiman reads his own tales — he is quite a voice actor, changing his tones, inflections, accents — all dexterously and effortlessly and all quite fitting the characters, the advantage of having the author (who is a good storyteller) reading the stories.

I did not love all the tales — not even most of them.  Of the 31 tales and verses, I think I only really enjoyed about a dozen or so.  Something felt lacking — quite a few seem to be character sketches or exercises in painting imageries and building atmosphere, for something bigger and more complete — but not deep or polished themselves.  I often enjoy Gaiman’s somewhat dark or even brutal (and honest, perhaps?) depictions of sexual acts in his writing for adults.  But, I found myself slightly appalled by certain gratuitous passages, shaking my head, gently whispering in my mind, “Neil, you did not have to resort to this — the story itself is strong and intriguing enough…”  — but, of course, many of these stories were meant to be slightly pornographic (light erotica) — I just didn’t quite prepare myself for so many of them being this way.  Now I’ve listened to it once, I’ll be able to go back and pick out the tales that I want to listen to over and over again (like quite a few of those in Fragile Things) and also figure out why some of the stories did not work for me the first time.  (They might grow on me upon repeat listening.)

 

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Batman: Arkham Asylum (15th Anniversary Edition)

batmanaa by Grant Moorison, art by Dave McKean

To some readers, namely my 12-year-old students, this book is a total disappointment.  It has the brand name Batman on the title.  It IS a sort of origin story — of the Arkham Asylum which houses many infamous villains, including the Joker, of the franchise; and it does have segments with Batman in them.  But, they feel somehow cheated because there is almost no treatment of the fight scenes during the Hide and Seek game on the Asylum Ground.  A couple of pages, with McKean’s signature dream-like artwork hastily showing Batman  dispensing of all the Asylum inmates, are all they got out of these fight scenes.  And as super hero comics readers, they were not satisfied.

I felt differently.  As a McKean art adorer, I enjoyed all the panels, both the really detailed close-ups and the dream-line distanced treatments.  And I am totally ok with not “watching” longer sequences of the fights.  I enjoyed the psychoanalytically inspired (albeit superficially so) back story of Doctor Arkham more than my students.  However, I won’t say that this is one to highly recommend to either Graphic Novel enthusiasts or novices.

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Batman R.I.P.

batman rip by Grant Morrison
I’ve never been a big fan of Batman — not his back story, and not his perpetual sorrow and the lasting vengeance. This tale didn’t change my mind. Certain aspects of it are intensely interesting — the fact that he self-hypnotized by putting another trigger phrase within his new identity is super clever. But, it all plays out too well and he is just too clever to make the second half of the story satisfying… you almost want him to fail. Definitely not my favorite story to date!

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