52. ‘Street Freaks’ by Terry Brooks

Earlier this year, I had the esteemed pleasure of seeing author Terry Brooks. Words cannot describe the sheer awesomeness of meeting one of my literary heroes. His epic fantasy worlds of Shannara and Landover inspired my dreams of becoming a writer myself. Although he talked about several upcoming projects, the one I was most excited for was the release of his science fiction novel Street Freaks. This is a vast departure from anything he has ever written, trading in elves and dragons for flying vehicles and genetically engineered people. While I would not rank this as the best science fiction ever, I will say that Brooks has written a fast-paced thrill ride that is nonstop fun from beginning to end.

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Street Freaks takes place several years in the future. The United States has become fragmented between technologically advanced cities and lawless areas called Red Zones where there are constant uprisings against the government. Ash Collins is a sheltered teenager being raised by his scientist father who is often gone working on top-secret projects for a major bio-engineering corporation. Ash’s comfortable life abruptly changes one day after receiving a mysterious video call from his father ordering him to go to the local Red Zone and seek asylum at a place known as Street Freaks. Moments later, Ash’s home is attacked and he is forced to go on the run. Once he finally arrives in the Red Zone narrowly escaping with his life, Ash becomes involved with a renegade group of teenagers, all of whom have been genetically altered in different ways that have given them abilities but also have made them outcasts. Ash soon learns that his father died from an apparent suicide, but he suspects that something much larger is taking place. Working with the Street Freaks, Ash attempts to solve the mystery behind his father’s death and the secrets that could possibly change the world as he knows it.

My first impression while reading Street Freaks is that it would make a great series for a network like the CW or even MTV (definitely a possibility since Shannara was adapted into an MTV series). This is not meant as an insult, just that the narrative of Street Freaks is written more in the style of the young adult genre. Ash serves as your fairly typical hero, nice guy who might be a bit clueless at first. The remainder of the cast consists of a group of snarky teens who have been genetically altered in some fashion, such as Holly whose body is enhanced with cybernetics and T.J. who was bred to be some type of super soldier. As Ash slowly integrates himself into this group of misfits, he learns that their cover of being a shop to enhance cars is merely a front for their true business of hacking large corporations for profit. Between dangerous car racing, fighting street thugs, and uncovering life-changing conspiracies, Street Freaks moves at such a fast pace that the popcorn appeal of the narrative often masks some of the flaws in the storytelling.

As Ash learns more about his new friends and life within the Red Zone in general, he discovers that his father’s death was not all that it appeared to be. Through the abilities of the Street Freaks, Ash uncovers a much larger conspiracy. There is plenty of danger to enjoy with every chapter, from dangerous car races, street gangs, and a sinister corporate conspiracy. Behind it all lies Ash’s uncle who primarily works as the not very compelling villain of the story.

While I have no issues with the YA genre in general, I thought at times this style hampered what could have been a stronger effort. There are some greater themes at work such as how the government is trying to do what is best for us or asking the question as to what makes us human, but this seems to get lost at times under all the teenage angst. While I liked Ash as a character, I got very annoyed by the love story in this one. Cay was created as a pleasure synth whose only function is to attract and seduce men. She managed to break away from that programming which is how she ended up with Street Freaks. While I have no issues with love stories, it got slightly irritating that there had to be reference after reference of how much Ash loved Cay. It struggled to feel believable at times.

In the end, I am glad that I read Street Freaks as it was fun to see Brooks step outside the fantasy realm and attempt something different. While this is a dystopian work that will never reach the success level of The Hunger Games, it is a fun read that never gets boring. While there are no groundbreaking ideas to be found here, this is still a lot to be said for the good old-fashioned science fiction thriller. Hopefully, Brooks will continue to occasionally step outside of his comfort zone. If not, then at least we have his fantasy novels to enjoy.

“Everything about this day has been beyond weird for Ash Collins-right from the moment he received his father’s vidview and started running. But going inside Street Freaks takes things to a whole new level.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

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Two Novellas for November

Today I’m reviewing two short books from November. The first is a dark thriller by British author Ian McEwan. The second one, written by American writer Michael Chabon, serves as a fitting tribute to the great Sherlock Holmes. While these books could not be more different, they share a common feature of how small books can contain huge themes.

50. The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

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It has been a couple of years since I’ve read anything by Ian McEwan, but so far I have had mixed feelings. I thought both Atonement and Enduing Love were excellent, but I didn’t care as much for either The Cement Garden or Black DogsMcEwan clearly earns his nickname of Ian “Macabre” for his fearlessness in exploring some rather dark material, which holds true in this story about an unhappy couple vacationing in Europe.

Colin and Mary, an unmarried couple who have been together for about seven years, are in the middle of a horrible vacation in a European city that resembles Venice. One night they meet a charismatic stranger named Robert who takes them out for the evening. During this encounter, Robert shares a terrible story from his upbringing under a domineering father and jealous sisters. If this story of childhood trauma wasn’t disturbing enough, Robert takes them back to his home where his new friends meet his crippled wife, who appears to be more of a prisoner to Robert rather than a spouse. This encounter inexplicably rekindles the lost passion between Colin and Mary, but the couple avoids discussing their bizarre evening with Robert. The couple eventually sees him again, and the results are quite disturbing.

The Comfort of Strangers is McEwan’s second novel following The Cement Garden. Like his first book, this one deals with some heavy themes such as damaging childhoods and dysfunctional relationships. When we first meet them, Colin and Mary are stuck in a comfortable pattern. McEwan has a gift for describing the couple, stating that “they knew each other as much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of perpetual concern; together they moved slowly, clumsily, effecting lugubrious compromises, attending to delicate shifts of mood, repairing breaches. As individuals they didn’t easily take offense; but together they managed to offend each other in surprising, unexpected ways.” Colin and Mary often blend together as one character as long-term couples typically do.

If I’m going to be completely honest, I didn’t enjoy this one at all. I found Colin and Mary to be boring, as well as stupid, so I just didn’t have any empathy for their plight. I understand that McEwan was trying to show that the colorful yet disturbed Robert held a certain allure that put the spark back into the couple. However, I found myself wanting to scream at these two to get away from him.

Also, I think some further backstory on Robert would have been helpful. As it stands, we get a very traumatizing moment from his childhood and are supposed to believe that this turns Robert into the monster that he becomes. While this book definitely was intriguing from a psychological perspective, I didn’t really enjoy this one at all. In McEwan’s defense, this is an early work that shows the type of writer he will become with works such as Atonement and the brilliant Enduring Love. 

51. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

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The Final Solution: A Story of Detection is Michael Chabon’s love letter to Sherlock Holmes. Referred to simply as the “old man,” the retired detective is content with living out his days with his bees. One day, he encounters a young mute boy walking along the railway tracks with an African gray parrot on his shoulder. Both the boy and his parrot are unusual, as the boy is mute and his bird continues to say a series of numbers in German. Soon the old man is called out of retirement following a murder connected to the young boy and the disappearance of the parrot.

Although there are no direct references to the name Sherlock Holmes or any of his adventures, Chabon places plenty of clues as to the identity of the old man. As far as the mystery is concerned, this story is intriguing and feels in many ways like a lost Holmes tale. Chabon has an extremely poetic style of writing, and I hated coming to the end so quickly.  As a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, I appreciated how Chabon created just the right ambiance. However, time has changed the detective since the days of his prime. Now an elderly man, he struggles with all the frailties of old age.

Death seems to be the old man’s constant companion, and Chabon makes several references to the physical and intellectual frailties that occur late in life. One such passage reads that  “he did not fear death exactly, but he had evaded it for so many years that it had come to seem formidable simply by virtue of that long act of evasion. In particular he feared dying in some undignified way, on the jakes or with his face in the porridge.” Despite time running out, rest assured that the old man is still the smartest one in the room.

Another theme underlying the narrative is the inexplicable nature of life. While some mysteries can be solved such as the missing parrot, other larger mysteries remain without a solution. I think it can only be described as a work of genius when a writer can take a short work and turn it into something much grander. Even the title of the work itself has multiple meanings. Hopefully, I will be checking out another work by Michael Chabon in the near future.

“It would please him well enough to amount to no more in the end than a single great organ of detection, reaching into blankness for a clue.”-The Final Solution

 

Have you read either of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

49. ‘The Happiness of Pursuit’ by Chris Guillebeau

I started blogging about books because I thought some accountability was needed if I was going to achieve my specific reading goals. As I continued to develop my skills as a writer, I made a rather important discovery. Talking about books and sharing my thoughts with the reading world bring me genuine happiness. This has been a journey of self-discovery which has helped me in a multitude of ways. But perhaps there are grander projects in my future. I was attracted to The Happiness of Pursuit by its promise of “finding the quest that will bring purpose to your life.” While I have never been big on motivational books, I found this one to be both inspiring and fun.

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Chris Guillebeau was inspired to write this book after achieving his own quest of visiting every country in the world by the age of 35. Interviewing others from all walks of life, he uses this book to share their stories such as walking across the continental U.S., cooking a meal from every country in the world, or taking one million photographs. Guillebeau emphasizes that working on a quest is all about creating meaning for your life. Unlike setting simple goals like lose 10 pounds or study a foreign language, a quest is meant to be a grand undertaking that does require time and commitment. Here are the criteria Guillebeau outlines in his book:

  • There must be a clear goal and a specific end point.
  • It must present a clear challenge.
  • A quest requires sacrifice of some kind.
  • It is motivated by a deep sense of internal purpose.
  • A quest requires incremental steps to reach that goal.

I was so amazed by these stories from real people. Although many involved travel, there were quite a few that were based around learning. Scott H. Young completed a 4-year MIT curriculum in computer science in under one year. Steve Kamb used his love of video games to create his own Epic Quest of Awesome. There’s a story of a woman who lived in a tree for over a year to protest against deforestation! I promise not all of them are that extreme, but these true stories definitely are the heart and soul of this book.

“To truly live with regrets, pay attention.”

We spend so much of our lives settling when there could be something something better out there for us. Whether it’s a job we hate or struggling with the same routine, this book encourages us to get out there and exist outside of our normal comfort zones. Don’t live outside the box, but build your own is the message that I took from this book. The Happiness of Pursuit draws from the collective experience and insights of all these people to provide a guide for readers to create and follow their own quests. In addition to the success stories, there are those that failed their quests or had to adjust to fit their lives in the moment.

Guillebeau provides many practical suggestions for becoming successful at achieving a quest. In particular, I agree with his belief that people need small victories along the way in order to stay fully motivated. We enjoy the idea of lists and being able to check off steps. Figuring out specifically what type of quest you should tackle does require a strong inner focus. Only through getting to know yourself, can you figure out those answers.

“The people who lose are the ones who don’t fail at all, or the ones who fail so big they don’t get to play again.”

The above quote truly resonated with me as I have been guilty of never getting started with a particular goal. Fear truly is the mind killer that keeps us complacent in the present while regretful in the future. According to Guillebeau, “You deal with fear not by pretending it doesn’t exist, but by refusing to give it decision-making authority.” Rather than be afraid of that almighty word “rejection,” learn to embrace it. One quest launched was “100 Days of Rejection” where this person would make a series of outlandish requests and record the results. This was one of the stories that really motivated me to the point where I plan to take this idea in a certain direction next year. I firmly believe that there is no success without failure along the way. Guillebeau acknowledges that setbacks will occur and to look at those roadblocks as positive learning experiences. We have to be able to make peace with this idea of rejection. If you fall off the proverbial horse, get back on and keep fighting. I would rather say “I failed” rather than “I didn’t try for fear of failure.”

From a psychological perspective, this book makes a lot of sense. Recently, I’ve wanted to understand more in regards to the science behind happiness. Although this book doesn’t provide a lot of hard research on this particular topic, reading true accounts of those whose lives have improved following specific quests has been inspiring.

If you are looking for some motivation to help get you started on a quest, then this book may just help you to achieve that purpose. Instead of just giving advice, Guillebeau provides real-life examples in order to set his book apart from other motivational texts. For this reason, The Happiness of Pursuit is different from a lot of other books that try to inspire people towards self-improvement. Some of the quests seem impossible, which is why Guillebeau includes smaller steps in the back of the book you can take. The idea is to follow your passion and not let life get in the way as it inevitably does. The biggest obstacle is your own willingness.

“Why pursue a quest? Because each of us in our lives is writing our own story, and we only have one chance to get it right.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

Reading Goals and End-of-Year Reading Plans

I realized yesterday that not only is it November, but the month is already half over!

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Since time has decided to go into hyper-drive, I thought it would be a great time to discuss the progress I have made on my reading goals as well as talk a bit about my reading plans for the remainder of 2018!

Read 50 Books:

Every year, I set a goal to read 50 books. I am quite pleased to report that I am only two books shy of completing that accomplishment for the year. Some readers set a much higher goal, but personally I like to keep the bar at 50 to avoid stressing myself out.

Read and review at least 6 classics to participate in Back to the Classics 2018:

This is my second year participating in the Back to the Classics challenge. To be entered for the final prize, you have to read at least 6 classics published no later than 1968 from certain select categories. At this moment, I have reviewed 10 with another one coming!

Read and review 12 books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge:

I think I can reach my goal on this one too as I have completed 9 reviews with another one coming. While it does not help that the remaining books on my list are long, it does help that every participant has two alternate choices in addition to the original list. I think the largest obstacle that has impeded my progress is that I am an “impulse reader.” Despite having a plan, I see something shiny and new and think “I need to read that now.” At least I admit I have a problem….

Read and review 5 books from different countries for the 2018 European Reading Challenge:

I added this challenge just so I could experience some authors from other countries. Unfortunately, this one has gotten the least attention but I did accomplish getting 5 books read. I need to update my Book Challenges 2018 page as I technically have read more than 5 books from European writers, but the idea is to read from different countries (I think I read 10 books from England alone).

Reading Plans for November/December: 

No worries about the cold here as I have a nice little stack of books to keep me warm. Here is my game plan to finish out 2018 strong!

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  • Novellas in November: I learned about this fun little event from Rick over at Another Book Blog. Since I have nothing but love for the wonder that is the novella, I have quite a few I could tackle rather quickly. Both The Final Solution by Michael Chabon and The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan sound interesting. I also have several other short novels that would count so possibly one more in addition to Chabon and McEwan.
  • Nonfiction November: Did you know that November is also a time to represent the beauty of the true story? I will probably only get one read for this category so I choose The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau. Motivational reading is always a plus!
  • Margaret Atwood: This year, I started reading this fabulous author. I have two books by her sitting on the shelves, Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. One will be read before the end of the year. Recommendations anyone?
  • Finish Challenges: Currently, I am halfway through Moby Dick. That leaves four books if I wanted to completely knock out my TBR challenge list: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Am I exhausting anyone yet?
  • Library Temptations: I also grabbed two irresistible new releases from the library: Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami and Street Freaks by Terry Brooks. I realize I am torturing myself by adding two books to an already tall pile, but these are two of my favorite authors!
  • Short Stories: I have been picking up some short story collections here and there, so possibly a review of one, or a discussion of a specific story I liked.

If I complete the books above, my final total for 2018 should be around 60! And yet, the book piles continue to grow.

Before closing out this post, I thought I should revisit another set of goals for 2018. At the beginning of the year, I did a post outlining my writing goals for 2018. Sadly, there is no need to outline those goals again……………because I accomplished none of them.

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This would be the moment where I say “but I was so busy.” However, I have grown quite tired of using that as my excuse. I could also say that I need to get off my ass and do it, but writing actually does not require me to get off my ass so I cannot say that either. Hopefully, I can still accomplish one writing goal before 2019. It is still quite attainable.

Thank you to all my subscribers for staying with me on my bookish adventures. Hopefully, the best is yet to come.

What books have you selected for the final weeks of 2018? How are your reading goals progressing? Let me know with a comment below!

48. ‘The Eye of the World’ by Robert Jordan

I began reading fantasy novels during my high school years as a means of escaping the harsh reality of my life. Stories of knights and wizards taking on the forces of evil were comforting for me because I knew that the good guys would always triumph at the end. It started with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as it most likely does for every lover of the sword and sorcery tales. Soon I was devouring lesser known fantasy works while playing Dungeons & Dragons on the weekends with my friends. Since those early reading years, my tastes in literature, have expanded, but I still carry a love of the fantasy genre to this day. The Eye of the World is the first volume in Robert Jordan’s massive Wheel of Time series. Heralded as one of the greatest epics in fantasy, I decided to finally give it a try after putting it off for years. Although I found The Eye of the World to have a familiar feel to the likes of Tolkien and Terry Brooks, I also saw some tantalizing glimpses of how this series could eventually become something even greater.

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The book begins with a banger of an opening prologue. A beautiful palace lies destroyed with all of its inhabitants dead. A lone man walks among the ruins, clearly insane as he is taunted by a mysterious figure who emerges from the wreckage. Although we have no idea what is occurring here (and will not for the majority of this book), we sense that we are witnessing the end of world-changing events.

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.”

Following the cracker of an prologue, the story proper begins with a small rustic village in preparation for its annual Spring festival. The environment is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Shire, but rather than a hobbit we are introduced to Rand, the son of a simple farmer. As the festival is about to begin, Emond’s Field is visited by two mysterious strangers. Moraine is what is called an Aes Sedai, a powerful witch who is capable of wielding extraordinary magic. She is protected by her Warder Lan, who acts as a type of knight. After an attack by Trollocs, monsters who serve the Dark One, Rand and his friends find themselves swept up into an adventure they could never imagine.

While the above description sounds exciting, believe me when I say it takes a while to get there. As the book is nearly 800 pages in length, the pacing is incredibly slow as Jordan takes time to develop his main characters. If I am being totally honest, I will admit that it took quite some time for me to make it past the first half of the book as the action does not gain ground until just past the midway point. Rand and several of his friends join Moraine and Lan as they learn that they are part of a pattern of events that are unfolding. Also, one of them may be the chosen one that will help defeat the Dark One.

Does this sound familiar? The similarities to works such as The Fellowship of the Ring and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks are numerous. The group embark on several dangerous adventures, get captured or nearly captured numerous times, and eventually get divided before rejoining in the final third of the book. The story is truly reminiscent of the standard fantasy novel: 1) ordinary boy leads a simple life, 2) monsters attack, 3) mysterious wizard (in this case witch) leads boy to think he may be the chosen one, and 4) the adventure begins. Yes, this book does follow a formula. As someone who enjoys this type of story, I was completely alright with this. There are a lot of aspects to this world to understand, and to his credit, Jordan builds quite an intricate world. Although there are some pages of exposition, often we are left to figure out some of the puzzle on our own.

I appreciated how gender is treated in relation to the wielding of magic which has a male half and a female half. There is what is known as the One Power or the Source where an Aes Sedai such as Moraine can draw power. It is established that if a male touches this power he becomes insane. The Aes Sedai are often treated with disgust because of their extraordinary abilities. There is a lot of philosophy embedded here, but I thought it was really interesting how there was a gender division to magic. It made me wonder if Robert Jordan did any studies on Carl Jung who explored the male and female halves of human psychology. Hopefully, this will be explored further throughout the series.

A struggle I had with Eye of the World was a failure to truly connect with any of the characters. Although Jordan spends a lot of time building his characters, I still had a hard time feeling any emotion for them. I will admit that this improved slightly in the second half when the group was divided. As this series is incredibly long at 14 books, I hope that I can connect more strongly with these adventurers later in their travels.

The Eye of the World, while typical in many ways to other fantasy novels, had some aspects that were quite revolutionary to the genre. While I was never a huge fan of the whole chosen one plot, there was enough here in regards to twists that kept me engaged. I look forward to reading the next in the series to see the direction Jordan takes with the story. The interesting facets to this universe help this novel rise above the issues I had in regards to pacing and the characters themselves. The potential for The Wheel of Time to rise among the ranks of works by Tolkien and Brooks is clearly there leading to an exciting prospect.

“As the Wheel of Time turns, places wear many names. Men wear many names, many faces. Different faces, but always the same man. Yet no one knows the Great Pattern the Wheel weaves, or even the Pattern of an Age. We can only watch, and study, and hope.”

 

This book counts towards one of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.