29. ‘The Forever War’ by Joe Haldeman

Until I found The Forever War on the shelves of my favorite used bookstore, I’d never heard of this author, let alone this book. Then through sheer coincidence I discovered a couple of favorable reviews from two book bloggers I often read. Isn’t it strange how these things often work out? Well I’m pleased to report that this awesome piece of classic science fiction deserves all of its accolades.

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The year is 1996, and Earth is in the midst of an intergalactic war against a mysterious alien race known as the Taurans who have destroyed several of our exploration spaceships. Scientists are able to go further into space thanks to the discovery of collapsars, neutron stars that allow near instantaneous travel from one point in the universe to another. Earth’s best soldiers in the war consist of highly educated men and women most of who hold advanced degrees. Private William Mandella is a bight young physicist who has been drafted into the army to serve on the front lines of the most gruesome war in human history.

Mandella is initially unprepared for the rigorous training required. Most of the soldiers don’t survive the deadly training exercises. If this wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the issue of severe time dilation. As the war continues, the soldiers must go further and further into space. While a journey to one of the portal planets may only take a few months (thanks to the collapsars), time moves much slower than on Earth. This means that while only a short time has passed for Mandella, entire decades may have already passed back home. Throughout the novel, Mandella returns home only to discover challenges far greater than just fighting some aliens.

Haldeman doesn’t shy away from the violence in this book as this novel is based on the author’s own experiences fighting in Vietnam. There are several parallels such as fighting a completely alien civilization that seems nearly impossible to fully defeat. Haldeman also draws connections to how soldiers in Vietnam must have felt on returning home to a world they didn’t recognize and the severe displacement they must have experienced. As a sci-fi novel, Haldeman is able to take his concepts even further and yet they don’t feel so unbelievable. There are teaching machines that can cram an unbelievable amount of knowledge into the human brain in a matter of days. There’s also severe government conditioning right before a battle where the soldiers are implanted with false memories of the Taurans, meant to ignite severe hate and fuel motivation. Incredible spacesuits can protect the body against damage from extreme speeds of space travel. There are plenty of battles against the Taurans, both on the ground and in space. Although military strategy isn’t my cup of tea necessarily, the battles were some of the most intense I’ve ever read. More than the actual fighting, what really sold me on this book were Mandella’s experiences back home in between battles.

When he first returns home, Mandella can’t believe all of the changes to his home. Several decades have passed, and Earth is a dystopian nightmare with violence and drug use galore. The book uses the term “future shock” to describe how soldiers struggled to adapt to the differences in culture. Rather than continue to live on this unrecognizable world, Mandella would rather reenlist and return to space.

One of the most interesting facets to the book were the importance of sex and sexuality. In the beginning, there is a lot of casual sex among the soldiers (distraction from all the death). As time dilation sends Mandella further into the future, homosexuality becomes more common until it gets to the point where all humans are homosexual, and Mandella is practically the outcast because heterosexuality is considered an “emotional dysfunction” that is easily curable. Since this book was written in the 1970’s, there is a somewhat old-fashioned attitude towards homosexuality as a big deal rather than no deal at all. I found it interesting that in the far future, government scientists would condition human beings to be homosexual, mainly as means of population control. Despite his attitudes towards sex, I found Mandella to be a likable character and hoped that a happy ending could be found for this man out of his own time.

There’s also a bit of romance in this book as well. One of the main plots of the story involve Mandella’s relationship with fellow solider Marygay. The chances of them having any type of future is slim due to the mortality rate of the war. There’s also the issue of time dilation when they both get sent off to separate missions. In fact, there’s a heartbreaking scene where the two are desperately having as much fun as possible on a planet called Heaven because they know they will have to say goodbye to each other soon.

Although it took me some time to get into the book, once I did I was hooked. I highly recommend The Forever War as a gripping work of science fiction.

“Surely cowardice had nothing to do with his decision. Surely he had nothing so primitive and unmilitary as a will to live.”

 

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

 

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An Evening with Terry Brooks

Many books ago, I was introduced to fantasy writer Terry Brooks. My best friend had been a loyal devotee since childhood. He loaned me his copy of The Sword of Shannara, and I stayed up most of the night devouring it. I completely fell in love with Shea Ohmsford and his quest to defeat the evil Warlock Lord. The book was such an epic masterpiece filled with some of the most incredible characters in a work of fantasy. Some time later, I started reading Brooks’s Magic Kingdom of Landover series and fell in love all over again. Imagine my excitement when my bestie informed me that Terry Brooks would be doing a speaking engagement and book signing near us! It was such a great evening and well worth it!

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Terry Brooks on the right! I tried to keep my gushing to a minimum!

I found Terry Brooks to be a fun and engaging speaker. He was kind of like the funny old uncle you see at family gatherings. It was great hearing him talk about his upcoming works. I’m most excited about the release of Street Freaks, his upcoming sci-fi thriller. Terry also read an excerpt from a new novella in his Word & Void series. He’s been a published author for over forty years, so he knows a thing or two about the craft. He was incredibly patient and took the time to answer several questions from the fans. I was most excited to hear that a new Landover book will be written in the next couple of years! Listening to Brooks discuss his career made me realize that I am so behind on the Shannara books. More for the TBR pile! I also really want to read his guide to writing, Sometimes the Magic Works. 

In order to participate in the book signing, you had to buy a copy of his newest release The Skaar Invasion, the next chapter in The Fall of Shannara series. We were told we could each bring one other book (although several people brought way more), so I chose my volume that holds the first three Landover books. Fortunately, the environment was quite pleasant. The event took place in a large bookstore, and I had fun looking at different books while my friend held my place in line. Unfortunately, budget issues kept my temptations in check.

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Despite the long wait, it was so worth it. Terry Brooks was a warm and caring individual who made it a point to talk to each fan for a few moments. I also loved that he wrote a different inspiring message for each of my books. After the event, my friend and I went to a place called Pops, a local landmark that sells (you guessed it) all brands of unique sodas. I made my friend buy a ranch-flavored soda. I tried a sip, and it was quite nasty. All in all, the whole adventure was a lot of fun. I can now say I’ve met and attended signings by two famous authors (the first was Kazuo Ishiguro). I’m motivated now to get caught up with the Shannara books and actually plan to reread the Landover novels in the near future.

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Have you read anything by Terry Brooks that you would recommend? Have you ever attended a book signing? Let me know with a comment down below!

27./28. ‘Behind a Mask’ and ‘Jack and Jill’ by Louisa May Alcott

Where does the time go? I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since my last review. Unfortunately, work has been extremely crazy. Then, I decided it was time to go on a little vacation. Now that I’m fully rested, it’s time to get back to business! As I work diligently to catch up on my blog, I thought it would be a good idea to do a double review. Fortunately, it helps that both books are by the same author. I recently participated in The Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge and decided to read and review three of her works. After finishing Little Women, I decided to try a couple of her lesser known works. Honestly, I couldn’t have chosen two very different books that show just how much Alcott’s style changed over her lifetime. The first is Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott,a collection of her early “blood and thunder tales” that started her career.

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Alcott started writing these sensational works for periodicals as a means for her poor family to make some money. Alcott usually wrote these tales anonymously or under a pseudonym, the most popular one being “A.M. Barnard.” Fortunately, young Ms. Alcott possessed quite the talent as an author of thrillers, and I can’t help but wonder if her own pent-up rage helped her with her writing process. In the introduction of my copy, Madeleine Stern talks about some of the hardships Alcott endured, including the harassment by a wealthy man who hired her to care for his sister. Who knew that Louisa May Alcott had her own #MeToo moment? It would appear this incident alone served as the fire which would ignite the creation of some rather dangerous characters, such as Jean Muir in the opening novella “Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power.” Hired as a governess by a wealthy family to oversee the education of the youngest daughter, Jean appears to be hiding many secrets as she manages to charm every male member of the household ultimately becoming the instrument of the family’s downfall.

For me, “Behind a Mask” was the strongest story in this collection. Alcott captured that atmosphere perfected later by Daphne du Maurier. As the audience, we learn early that Jean is up to no good and watch helplessly as she slowly orchestrates her grand plan. The pacing of the piece is perfect, and this story serves as a rare occasion where the villain ends up on top. This story sets the tone for the three following shorter works. The concept of the “masks” we wear to hide our true intentions is a theme that runs through all of the stories. Each one features a character who is not what she (or he) initially appears to be. Often, the motive is revenge for a wrong committed long ago. In the case of Jean Muir, her actions are dictated due to the limitations of women in a pre-feminist society. Alcott definitely exercises her power in the creation of a woman who is a powerful force using nothing but her acting skills and her intelligence.

Both “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and “The Mysterious Key and What it Opened” are perfect revenge tales. Despite both being shorter than the first story, I still thought they were long enough to set the pacing and tension for the final reveals at the end. Pauline was scorned horribly by the man she was to marry, so she uses her new lover to get even with him. We learn that the ex-boyfriend is not all he is cracked up to be: gambling addict, alcoholic, and borderline abusive. In fact, it seems like Pauline and her new love Manuel could just flaunt their new romance in front of him and that would be enough. Unfortunately, Pauline’s obsession with making her ex suffer leads to some rather tragic consequences. “The Mysterious Key” takes us back to Britain, and sets up the suspense early with a death and the appearance of a mysterious male child. The truth behind the mystery is not discovered until many years later and is far more convoluted than any reader could ever guess. I really enjoyed this one quite a lot because it took place over several years and had some really charming moments despite being one of Alcott’s revenge stories.

With the final tale “The Abbot’s Ghost” I was hopeful for some real supernatural fun. Unfortunately, this story was the weakest in the collection for me. There is the appearance of a ghost at the end, but it is actually a very small scene in the story. This tale focuses more on the secrets of the Treherne family with quite a few love triangles thrown in for good measure. This one just didn’t do it for me, but I may have been burned out on Gothic fiction by the time I got to this one.

As a word of warning, there are some cases of politically incorrect dialogue in some of these stories. For example, a character of Latin descent is referred to as “hot-blooded.” Another story features a character use the word “idiot” to describe someone with a developmental disability, something that would be completely unacceptable by today’s standards. I also couldn’t help notice that there was a lot of romance between characters who were cousins. Perhaps this was more a common practice during that time period. I would definitely recommend this book for Alcott scholars or those that just love some old-fashioned Gothic romance.

“Human minds are more full of mysteries than any written book and more changeable than the cloud shapes in the air.”

Now that I’ve examined Alcott during her pre-Little Women days, let’s take a look at an example from her later life, the warm-hearted Jack and Jill: A Village Story (1880). It was quite a change moving from Alcott’s dark fiction to a story written about and for children.

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Jack and Jill takes place in Harmony Village, a small town in New England. Jack Minot and Jane “Jill” Pecq are best friends and next door neighbors. One day, right before Christmas, the two are involved in a terrible sledding accident. The aftermath leads to the two children recovering in their respective homes, Jack from a broken leg and Jill from an injured back. The book takes place over the next year with the two friends learning valuable life lessons from their mothers as well as their multitude of friends.

It’s hard to believe that this book was written by the same author who once refused to write Little Women calling it “moral pap for the young.” Alcott practically beats you over the head with highly moralistic lessons and instructions on how to be a better person. After reading Jack and Jill, I felt the overwhelming need to run to my local church, confess that I once took my brother’s binoculars without his permission, and then demand to be bathed in holy water. Granted, this was a book meant to have youngsters as the main audience so perhaps Alcott felt obligated to make the book more of a teaching tool than anything else. Maybe her outlook on writing moralistic fiction had changed by this time.

Similar to the format of Little Women, each chapter is practically a self-contained story in itself. Most of the narrative focuses on Jack and Jill, but there are some chapters dedicated to some of the other children and their own individual struggles. There’s Merry who loves beauty and nature, but whose family are farmers with little time for such pleasantries. Molly has to be a mother to her younger brother due to the neglect from her father. Jack’s older brother Frank, my personal favorite, is a bookish boy who is obsessed with engineering. Each chapter focuses on a dilemma facing one of the youngsters, resulting in a valuable life lesson at the end.

I can see the character of Jill as being a child version of Jo March, but I honestly became annoyed in regards to some of the more sexist parts. There’s one scene where it is debated on whether girls should attend college like the boys. Several discussions take place within the book regarding a girl becoming a proper “young woman.” I realize that Alcott, a staunch feminist, was showing us the beliefs and attitudes of the times rather than preaching these ideals. I was rather shocked near the end by Mrs. Minot’s decision that the children should postpone any further schooling and instead should focus on other attributes such as physical health.  By the end of the book, Jack, Jill, and Frank appear to be getting educated at home, so perhaps this is showing us Alcott’s disdain for the state of public education at the time.

Jack and Jill is a charming story about children trying to be the best versions of themselves they can be. It was nice to see the characters grow both intellectually and socially. Despite being dated, this book is a guide to a better way to live.

I enjoyed taking part in this reading challenge for the second year so special thanks to In the Bookcase for hosting and inviting me to participate. Louisa May Alcott was a writer who was able to show us both the bad and the good parts of human nature.

“Do your best while you live, and I don’t believe anything good is lost, whether we have it a long or a short time.”

 

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

 

 

The Best Books of 2018 (so far)

Happy July! I can’t believe the year has flown by so fast. For that matter, I’m still in disbelief that I’ve been a book blogger for nearly three years! I thought it might be a fun idea to look at my favorite books for 2018 so far. Some of these books were planned reads, while others just crept in pleasant surprises (as books typically do). Maybe some of these will make it to my annual awards in December. Without further ado, here are my personal top reads of the year:

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

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If you love great science fiction, then this is the book for you! Ted Chiang is a brilliant writer who creates some truly memorable stories around some fantastic ideas. What if angels existed? What if we could no longer recognize beauty? Chiang often leans heavily on the science with plenty of philosophical questions thrown in for good measure. Two of the ones that really stand out for me are “Hell is the Absence of God” and “Liking What You See: A Documentary.” I also really loved “Story of Your Life.” This collection is an early front-runner for my “Best Short Story Collection” Award.

Death with Interruptions by José Saramago

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This was my first experience reading the legendary José Saramago, and it certainly will not be my last! This story asks what would happen if death decided to quit. Everything about this story is ambitious-the subject matter, the unique style, the way the author shows the effects on the world before scaling the story down to a very intimate one involving two characters. This one could very well take home “Best Translated Book.”

Tenth of December by George Saunders

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I must admit I was slightly underwhelmed by Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders more than redeemed himself with this impressive collection of short stories. I love fiction that merges real situations with the bizarre, and he definitely manages to find a balance between the two realms. Many of the stories have a science fiction slant like the phenomenal “Escape from Spiderhead.” Saunders takes us to humanity’s darkest corners in order to help us find the light. I have a feeling selecting “Best Short Story Collection” is going to be tough this year.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

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You may not call yourself a writer until you’ve read this wonderful guide to all aspiring authors. This book still remains relevant because Goldberg continues to state that the most important rule as a writer is to write. This book is so inspirational that it really should be sitting on every writer’s bookshelf. For “Best Nonfiction Book,” this one is going to be almost impossible to defeat.

Persepolis/Becoming Unbecoming/Fun Home 

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My toughest decision will clearly be the award for “Best Illustrated Book.” Although these three books are told in three very different styles, they have many similarities. All of them are true stories. Each one is an empowering example of survival. Finally, all three of these books are written by women writers. I can’t even begin to praise how beautifully each of these books was written and illustrated. In fact, I loved each of these so much that it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite from the group.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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With this wonderful adaptation of the old Norse myths, Gaiman proves that he is still one of the best fantasy authors in the world. There’s plenty of epic action here combined with some great laugh out loud moments. This year’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” has a clear favorite.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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I read this modern classic for one of my challenges, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Ellison’s masterpiece overwhelmed me (it gave me feelings). I thought about it long after I finished it, so it definitely deserves another mention.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

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This book is the first of a trilogy, one that I hope to complete in the near future. Deeply disturbing for its depiction of a harsh alien world and the human inhabitants that call the planet home, Dark Eden could possibly take home “Most Disturbing Read.” If nothing else, it will get “Best Book Cover.”

I hope you enjoyed this look back at the year so far. In regards to what’s ahead, I will be posting two reviews of the other Louisa May Alcott books I read for June (a double review!) as well as Joe Haldeman’s sci-fi thriller The Forever War. I will also be writing a summer book haul post as well as talking about meeting a famous author. Who could it be? Keep checking back to find out!

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What are your favorite books so far this year? Any ones you absolutely hated? Comment below as I would love to hear from you!

Happy Anniversary ‘Little Women’

Last weekend, I reviewed Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women in honor of its 150th anniversary. While researching the book, I made some fascinating discoveries. Who doesn’t love a little trivia? Here are some fun and interesting facts about the Alcott classic:

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Despite not wanting to write it, Alcott finished Little Women in under three months!

Louisa May Alcott was quite comfortable with the fiction she was already writing when her publisher requested she write a book for girls. However, Alcott referred to the idea as “moral pap for the young” until she realized that by agreeing to write Little Women she would be helping her father. Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist and intellectual, had an idea for a book on his innovative ideas. Louisa thought maybe her father would land a publishing deal if she agreed to write Little Women. As we all know, it worked out very well for her.

Her initial reservations did not stop the young author from penning the entire book in only ten weeks! I think I’m going to remember that the next time I take months writing one short story. Although Bronson Alcott never quite achieved the level of fame as his legendary daughter, he is someone worth researching for his ideas on education.

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Little Women is actually the first in a series

There are actually a total of four books that follow the adventures of the March family. After being published in two parts, Little Women (1868) was followed by Good Wives (1869), Little Men (1871), and Jo’s Boys (1886). Unfortunately, the sequels did not quite live up to the fame of the first book. However, I hope to read them all at some point.

Jo’s Boys would in fact be Alcott’s final published novel. She passed away from a stroke on March 6, 1888. Unfortunately, the last chapter in the March saga never received the acclaim of the others.

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The March sisters were based on Louisa and her own sisters

As I mentioned in my review, headstrong Jo is based on Alcott herself. Older sister Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna. The description of Meg’s wedding in the book is quite similar to the real-life wedding of Anna. The character of Beth was based on Lizzie who contacted scarlet fever at a young age. Amy was modeled after Louisa’s sister May who was an artist.

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Did you catch the Easter eggs to Alcott’s other writings?

During an early scene in the book, the March sisters are performing a play that Jo wrote. The play is rather Gothic, and I can’t help but smile at this nod to Alcott’s darker fiction. When she was angry at her sister, Amy destroyed some of Jo’s writings, a collection of fairy tales. In her early writing days, Alcott penned some fairy tales for children. Art once again imitates life.

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Jo and Laurie, the original “ship”

Alcott’s many fans were determined that Jo should marry handsome boy-next-door Laurie. However, their creator was equally adamant that it wasn’t happening. Alcott even protested to her publisher as she preferred for Jo to remain single. Unfortunately, her publisher also wanted the Jo and Laurie pairing. Alcott would eventually compromise, having Jo marry Professor Friedrich Bhaer. The literary community continues to debate Team Bhaer vs. Team Laurie.

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Little Women has led to some interesting adaptations

Over the years, the classic has been adapted numerous times. In addition to a 1950’s television series, there have been numerous Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera. There have been many film adaptations of Little Women such as a 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, a 1949 version with Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Amy, and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, a modern retelling is scheduled to hit theaters.

There have also been lots of small screen versions of the saga, the most recent being the highly praised adaptation for PBS’s Masterpiece. One of the more interesting television translations has to be the 1978 miniseries which starred Susan “Laurie Partridge” Dey as Jo and William “Captain Kirk” Shatner as Professor Bhaer. A Canadian series of sequel Little Men was produced in 1998. Perhaps the greatest translations of all are thanks to Japanese anime. Running in half-hour episodes, “Tales of Little Women” and “Little Women II: Jo’s Boys” had some fun individual titles like “Father is Dying… Jo Sells Her Hair!” and “Naughty Jo Riding a Bicycle.” You really can’t make this stuff up folks. I posted a sample below (you know you have to watch).

Happy Anniversary Little Women! Your immortality is assured.