Archive for the ‘Sci-fi’ category

SYLO by D.J. MacHale

November 25th, 2013

SYLO by D.J. MacHale kept me guessing the whole time as to who the villains were and what motivated them. That’s saying a lot, because I’ve seen many stories about a crazy government taking over. That’s the big trend right now, right? But SYLO covers new ground as we wonder if there’s another, bigger threat that the super controlling government agency is protecting the populous from.

It does have the stereotypical underdog male protagonist, his goofy friend, and the tech-savvy girl/potential girlfriend. So the characterization is a little routine, but it’s the plot that will keep you reading. A small island off of the East Coast of the United States has been quarantined and high school student Tucker Pierce intends to find out why. A mysterious disease is reported, a shipment of superpower-enabling crystals washes up on shore, and high tech aircraft haunt the night skies. It’s got all the makings of a Men in Black story, but, like I said, it’ll keep you guessing.

It’s the first part of the series and I appreciate that MacHale wrote an introduction explaining that this is not Pendragon. In the current market, where there is so much series loyalty and students get upset when an author writes in a different style, it was probably a wise move on MacHale’s part. It’s still science fiction, but it has a little bit more of an edge than the first Pendragon books. It’s worth getting a copy for your library to test the waters of its popularity. It’s a well-known author but not necessarily a well-known series since it’s new, so it may take a bit before you need multiple copies unless you booktalk it.

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

July 3rd, 2013

Before she became a writer, S.J. Kincaid interned with a politician in Washington, D.C. and you know that had to influence Insignia, her debut novel. It’s set in a future where corporations have more power than nations and war has become so distant and sanitized that teens are the ones fighting the battles via drones. The threat of a neutron bomb and mutually assured destruction keeps warfare civil.

Tom is recruited a la The Last Starfighter to train in the Pentagon (now a spire like something out of Ender’s Game) and escape his troubled home situation. It’s a fun adventure and, on the surface, is a lighthearted sci-fi story with enjoyable character interactions. I found myself laughing out loud multiple times and that’s rare for me.

But there’s another layer to Insignia, one that challenges what modern warfare really means and what the whole point is. Behind the scenes are employees of megacorporations trying to woo combatants to fight for them. Imagine if the U.S. Army was sponsored by Wal-Mart (with Wal-Mart’s two million employees) and the Navy was run by McDonald’s (where every fish in the sea contained genetically engineered McFish DNA). The great thing, though, is that it’s not preachy and addresses it in an accessible manner.

The tech is pretty cool, too. Each character is introduced with name, rank, and IP address popping up in Tom’s vision. Computer programming takes center stage for a bit, but it either produces humorous or dangerous results, so I don’t think a non-programmer audience will be bogged down by it. I like to code, though, so I may be biased. (Really, the programming action reminded me of the wizard duels in Harry Potter.)

While many parts reminded me of other stories, Insignia‘s a brilliant combination of those different elements told through Kincaid’s honest voice. It’s definitely worth a read and a copy or two on the shelf.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

June 24th, 2013

If you read my Steelheart review, you’ll remember that one thing I loved about it was that the dystopian government took on such a different look that it was refreshing.

Under the Never Sky does not do that. It’s still a crazy government that does not want its secrets to get out to the public and the super technological control (I mean, the domes of Logan’s Run are back) is justified to keep the order. Okay, I get it. I loved it when The Giver did that (or, more accurately, Fahrenheit 451.) The villain is the same, just with a different name.

That being said, I like the world that Rossi has created. People out in the wild have developed enhanced powers revolving around one sense. Some people can see like falcons, others can smell like wolves (you know, they have a sensitive nose – they don’t actually give off canine odors). Trying to figure out which character had which enhanced sense was part of the fun.

The narrative alternates between two protagonists that have distinct voices, so Rossi did well with that. The male protagonist was a bit too angsty for me, a tortured anti-hero rebel with a hidden heart of gold (translate: dangerous yet safe, like the “bad boy” from a boy band) but I’m guessing that I’m not the target demographic.

When it comes down to it, though, it was an enjoyable read, albeit formulaic, and I’m interested in reading the sequel.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

June 4th, 2013


No, seriously. Wow.

To call Steelheart epic would be a horrible pun and I will resist the temptation to call it that, but it’s an accurate description.

I am an avid fan of sci-fi action stories and yet I have hesitated in picking up the latest spec fic greatness because I’ve been burned out by the genre – more specifically, the overpopulating of the market with Hunger Games/Divergent/Uglies clones. The farther you go down the line of clones, the more the DNA of a good story starts to degrade.

That may not be the most powerful metaphor, but confusing metaphors is one of my new favorite character flaws thanks to David, the protagonist of Steelheart. He’s a standout hero by not being a standout hero. Part of the mystery is David’s background, so I won’t go into much detail. (I realized this as I was typing. There’s a big paragraph that I just erased; now you’ll have to read the book and I can geek out at/with you about how David wasn’t a predictable protagonist.)

We have a dystopia, but instead of a crazy government run by Donald Sutherland, it’s a tyranny of what would happen if Superman was a jerk. The guy can fly, punch through a wall, and shoot lasers out of his eyes. His eyes, people! Why do we trust him? He could turn and enslave us without thinking twice. That’s what the Epic Steelheart has done.

Steelheart is similar to Superman, although he shoots energy out of his hands. Very different. There are a ton of references to comic history throughout the beginning of the book; I appreciated streets named after comic creators and buildings named after people who have portrayed supers on the big screen. The fact that Steelheart can turn things to steel – making him a Man of Steel (wokka wokka) – is no coincidence. The fact that fashion has looped all the way back to a 1940s/50s style adds to the homage.

Don’t be fooled by the references to the comic Golden Age, though. The tone is dark, the opening scene being especially haunting. The characters have depth. At first I tried to stereotype them. (“Oh, this guy’s like Roadblock from G.I.Joe or Gambit from X-Men.”) The characters, while reminiscent of other memorable characters, have their own wants, conflicts, and quirks.

The action is extremely well-paced. The backstory of Newcago and its inhabitants is revealed right alongside the human effort to survive in a superhuman dictatorship. There are high speed chases of helicopters versus motorcycles (what I liked about Yancey’s Alfred Kropp) and yet the action is human enough that I felt emotion at the end of the scene, hoping that the characters would be okay.

This one’s going to be huge when it comes out in September. I’m so glad that I read it despite having passed over it a few times in my queue. Brandon Sanderson has talent and it makes sense since he’s the author that was chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time…epic.

So THAT’S what Battle School looks like

May 7th, 2013

Here’s the first trailer for Ender’s Game. Was it worth the wait?

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

April 15th, 2013

Throw Dune, Ender’s Game, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Hunger Games into a blender and you get A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I like all of those stories. There’s centuries of intergalactic scheming. There’s a battle school. There’s even an arena where tributes run to the weapons to get the upper hand in combat. (Okay, so the arena scene was kinda meh because I kept picturing Katniss in the background trying to get to the cornucopia.)

Princes are superhumans that travel the galaxy and do whatever they want – or at least that’s what Prince Khemri thinks as he is connected to the Imperial Mind. When he’s connected to the Imperial Mind, he doesn’t have to fear death. He can be reborn as long as the Imperial Mind finds him worthy. It’s when Khemri is stripped of his connection to the Imperial Mind that we start to worry about him as a character. He becomes a regular mortal – a la Superman II when the Man of Steel just wants to be Clark Kent. While he’s mortal, he starts to relate to the humans that he once thought were subservient. He is engrossed in a tiny conflict in one small solar system, but is willing to risk it all to help his newfound friends and realizes that one tiny system may play a bigger role in the Empire.

The worldbuilding is great. The Tek is well-defined (this device is biological, this one is mechanical) and consistent. Part of it felt like a video game power system, and that may very well be because the game was released before the book as an advertisement. I liked P.J. Haarsma’s Rings of Orbis better as a pioneer in book-related gaming, though.

It is a standalone book, not a series, which is quite the shocker in today’s YA speculative fiction market. I liked it and wouldn’t mind seeing more stories from different Princes.

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer (House of the Scorpion #2)

March 20th, 2013

If you haven’t read House of the Scorpion, stop here. It is an excellent book and I don’t want to spoil any of its details. If you have read it, meet me after the scorpion…

Yes, House of the Scorpion has a sequel. Many students will be excited. I even had one class a few years ago get so mad that there wasn’t a sequel that they wanted me to write to Nancy Farmer and make her write a sequel.

It seems that more people wanted a sequel because here we are.

A caution, though: I started reading with extremely high expectations and it took me a bit to realize that the sequel is different. Where the first book is about a young boy trying to survive in a crazy cartel world, the sequel is about Matt trying to run the cartel. The book spends a significant part of the narrative taking the reader on a tour of the new Lord of Opium’s palace. His ideals come into conflict with some of the staff from the previous leader, but most respect him – at least on a surface level. This was the part of the book where my attention waned for a bit. While it’s interesting learning about the inner workings of a household, it wasn’t what I was reading the book for. I wanted suspense. In the first book, a clone could be killed without any real consequences because they were property. How harrowing! I wanted that level of suspense and/or intrigue.

The rival drug lord was scary sounding. I mean, his name is Glass Eye. I wanted more threats from him, more brooding foreshadowing from him. Something. Anything.

I had to accept that the big conflict for The Lord of Opium is person vs. self. Matt is a clone of a violent man. One question haunts Matt’s existence: Will his genetics destine him to a life of violence or will the world around him forge him into a violent man? (Okay, so maybe that’s technically two questions.) Once I realized that it was Matt’s own fears that we should worry about, it made for a more interesting read.

The scientific detail matches the first book and challenges the ethics of why we do what we do. I loved that about House of the Scorpion and appreciated it here. I didn’t quite anticipate just what tech level the society was at, though. Imagine my surprise when a wormhole opened up in the hacienda. It was jarring (my reading, but I’m sure the portal was, too), but once I shifted my perspective, I was good.

Nancy Farmer works in many details from Arizona. As a fellow Arizonan, I appreciated references to Kitt Peak, Ajo, and the Chiricahua Mountains. Those details were spot on.

So, what did I think of the book? I enjoyed it, but there were noticeable hurdles for me to get over. Some were in the pacing of the novel and the focus of the scenes. Some, though, were a result of perhaps unrealistic expectations on my part for a follow-up to such a staple of YA fiction that House of the Scorpion is. I’ll definitely pick up a copy when it releases for the Fall semester, but I’ll hold off on getting multiple copies until I hear from the students about what they think of the book. My copy was a digital ARC on my phone. Yes, publishers, this may save you printing costs, but it would help you out in the long run if I could hand out a paper copy to a student to give me their opinion.

Fear by Michael Grant

November 27th, 2012

At its core, Michael Grant’s Gone series is about children transitioning into adulthood – and, you know, superpowers and horrific monsters and all that. That theme of transition carries through to the very last page of Fear and it’s done very well. Yes, the story is action-packed and suspenseful, but it’s the tough life situations that the characters grapple with that floors me.

When we transition from our teen years into adulthood, we look at what we’ve been taught all our lives and then form our own opinions and beliefs. Multiple characters in Fear go through this process and are stuck at different stages. That developmental dissonance does get edgy, though, since the same doubts and fears that the characters have are ones that students have and it may hit a little too close to home – or, on the positive, provide a voice for students who may not have someone to talk about with these issues.

I can’t say much more about the plot because that would ruin the great endings of the other books in the series, but I will say that there is a countdown again in this book and I am impressed with how Michael Grant can pull off a satisfying, climactic ending each time and yet keep it pretty free of clichés (even though you know there’s going to be a super-powered brawl at the end of each).

Nevermore by James Patterson

August 18th, 2012

I just finished Nevermore  by James Patterson and feel like I have come to an end of a journey. I remember when the first one came out while I was in the classroom and pretty much any student that I recommended it to enjoyed it. The series isn’t as big as it used to be at our school, but this is an enjoyable end to the series.

It is the end, right? It says so on the cover. It even comes with a sticker that says “Maximum Ride R.I.P.” Side note: Nevermore should be one word, so why did they hyphenate it? I guess now that the most recent books are one-word titles (Max, Fang, Angel), it’s tough to stick with the current layout/font scheme.

So, to tell you much about the book would give away a ton of spoilers. This person switches loyalties, this person comes back from the dead. What I can tell you about is the character development. The focus of Max’s last book is on her choosing between Fang, her friend from the beginning, or Dylan, a boy genetically-engineered to be her perfect match. You know, the usual.

Since Max’s chapters are from first-person POV, we do see her struggling with the choice of who she wants to run away with. I know the conflict has been building throughout the series, but she definitely was more concerned with the safety of her flock than her own happiness in the first books. I guess that’s a sign of the other characters proving themselves, which is a life situation many can relate to as they grow up.

Some things don’t change, though. When Max fights, she still slaps Erasers on the ears and breaks their eardrums. That combat move has been used over and over throughout the series. So are the high-flying dips and weaves. That’s who Max is, though.

That’s the other conflict of the book. It was foretold that Max would save the world, but as you come to the close it seems like that won’t happen. Like I said, anything more would be a spoiler, but I will say that it kept me sorta guessing (I knew there were probably one of two outcomes to the book) as the pages flipped by.

And it’s a James Patterson book. The chapters are short and well-paced. It didn’t take me too long to finish the book, despite what anxious students and teachers have said as they tracked my bookmark’s progress. That’s a good sign that even though interest in the series has waned, there are still fans who will appreciate a good ending to a YA empire.

Ray Bradbury – 1920-2012

June 6th, 2012

One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, passed away last night. If you are a fan of character-driven science fiction, he’s definitely one to check out. My favorites are The Martian Chronicles, “There Will Come Soft Rains”, and his ultimate, in my opinion, Fahrenheit 451. He predicted so many devices that we now take for granted and wrote psycho dystopian before psycho dystopian was cool. If you like Divergent or Hunger Games, both owe a lot to Ray Bradbury’s style.

The L.A. Times has a great obituary.