Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fiction | How to Build an Intergalactic Hero

| No comments:
It's taken nearly two years (pathetic), but I'm closing in on completion of the Read Harder Challenge I began back in 2015. Naturally, the categories I have remaining are the ones I looked least forward to tackling, and among those was science fiction because mehhh, just not my thing.

I was reminded of Ender's Game this past spring when a student checked it out for his independent novel study project. I decided to use Orson Scott Card's classic as my sci-fi novel because a) it is a classic, and b) since I have it in my school library, it'd give me an advantage to know how to recommend it to my readers! Once chosen, though, I pretty much dreaded reading it based entirely on its genre. I rarely, if ever, read sci-fi, and I really didn't like the last one I did read. Also, I had no idea what the story was actually about; no doubt unfairly, I just lumped it into a genre I didn't care for, regardless of the details.

The story is about a 6-year-old boy named Ender Wiggin. He's the third child in his family, his family's third try at producing the commander who can defeat the alien army. Neither his brother nor sister proved to be "the one"—Peter has a sadistic streak, and Ender is pretty sure Peter'd kill him if he had the chance; Valentine is brilliant but an emotional liability. She is Ender's only source of comfort and protection from his older brother. Ender, though, is tough, masks his emotions, and brilliantly manages to get himself out of any scuffle in which he finds himself entangled. After one particularly brutal but triumphant encounter with a bully, Ender is recruited and sent to Battle School where he will train to become the hero the military needs in the next phase of the bugger war.

Ender thrives at Battle School and quickly proves himself to be leagues above his peers. He is able to see what's before him from a different perspective, throwing out the rules as they have been assumed. This trait does him well in the battle arena and at 10, skipping years of training, he is moved to Command School. Ender's leaders, though, increasingly isolate him and throw out seemingly impossible tasks to see how well he will handle each situation. The thing about Ender, though, is that his actions always surprise him. Strategically, he's brilliant, but the swiftness and almost ruthlessness with which he handles threats are never fully intended. To Ender, it makes him a monster, no better than Peter; to the military, he's a weapon and the best shot they have against the buggers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the successful balance of plot and character in Ender's story. As an adventure, the story is engrossing and easy to follow. Ender's world is definitely unlike our own, but the narrative never bogs down with description and reasoning; things simply are the way they are, and as a reader, you don't feel the need to question them. Ender is a character we care to follow. We meet him at such a young age, only six, which seems entirely implausible based on the complexity of the situations and conversations he encounters. But then again, it's Ender's world, and while Card does concede that Ender and his siblings are exceptional, it's mostly just a fact we accept without argument or coercion.

I never expected to like this book, but I ended up really enjoying it. It's an engrossing, accessible adventure for middle school and up kids. And beyond that, it's conceptually complex and full of content and commentary that can be read on a much deeper level—definitely a good one for literary analysis. I'm sure it is and has been analyzed to death by scholars and sci-fi fans, but it can easily be read and enjoyed at surface level, too.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 14

| No comments:

Title: Crown of Three
Author: J.D. Rinehart
Genre: Fantasy
Read If You Like...: medieval magic, royal conflicts, Game of Thrones
Three-Sentence Summary: In a land ruled by a brutal king and wracked with Civil War, a prophecy brings hope of peace when illegitimate triplets of the king overthrow his reign and assume the throne. Separated at birth, the three must leave their separate lives behind and come together to save the kingdom of Toronia. The author of this must be a Game of Thrones fan because it was exceedingly complex and excessively violent for a middle grade novel.

Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Author: Robert Beatty
Genre: Fantasy
Read If You Like...: Historical settings, spine-tingling mysteries, Stranger Things-esque monsters
Three-Sentence Summary: Serafina and her father live secretly in the basement of the extravagant Biltmore Mansion, he as the estate's maintenance man and she as a stowaway no one knows even exists. When children begin to disappear from the estate, Serafina decides she must break her father's rule of never leaving the Biltmore's grounds and venture into the fearsome forest to investigate a mysterious man in a black cloak she believes is linked to the disappearances. The twists in this story are unexpected, and Beatty has created an unpredictable world of mystery and magic that its readers will investigate with anticipation.

Title: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans
Author: Don Brown
Genre: Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction (yes, and ewww, 2005 is historical to middle schoolers)
Read If You Like...: Survival stories, "based on a true story" stories
Three-Sentence Summary: This graphic novel telling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is simple in scope, void of individual stories and experiences. Instead, it relies on simple text and straightforward facts and numbers to convey the chaos, heroism, and racism surrounding this natural disaster. Perhaps it's intended to be a concise but thorough introduction, one that touches on all the major issues and themes, to an audience that wasn't even born in 2005, but to me it felt too simple a telling (and conclusion) of such a complex event that still has repercussions.

Title: Nightmares!
Author: Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
Genre: Horror
Read If You Like...: light-hearted horror (aka: the not-too-scary kind), Goosebumps, Jason Segel (obviously)
Three-Sentence Summary: Charlie's life would be okay if it was just the creepy new house and creepy new stepmom (who he's convinced is actually a witch), but when his nightmares become real, he's got a whole new problem on his hands. The line between the real world and dream world should never be crossed, and it seems up to Charlie and friends to make sure the door between the two is closed for good. The story features creepy elements but, overall, is pretty mild, serving its purpose as a light adventure read.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Reading Roundup: History Lesson

| No comments:
Ingrid Betancourt's The Blue Line is a story that oozes history—that deep-set kind, full of action, consequence, and complexity kind. It'a unavoidable, you realize, when you take a look at the author's biography; Betancourt is a Colombian politician and activist, kidnapped and held hostage for six years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It is clear that she has drawn on her own experiences for The Blue Line, to tell the story of a passionate young woman named Julia, embroiled in the political chaos of a 1970s Argentina.

As an impressionable teenager, finding and defining her sexual and social identities, Julia falls for a revolutionary, Theo, who pulls her down a path of political idealism that becomes increasingly dangerous as the country's military dictatorship gains power. Julia and Theo's lives lose stability as trust becomes an uncertainty and safety is not guaranteed.

Amidst the growing chaos in Julia's life, she continues to live with a strange gift inherited from her grandmother—visions of the future, seen through the eyes of others. Accustomed to these apparitions, Julia has spent much of her young life fearing what she will see, beholden to the responsibility of intervening to prevent whatever horrific event she witnesses.

If this book were just all one part or the other, all politics or magical realism, it wouldn't have the appeal that it does; it would be too bogged down by its genre, producing a one-track story, narrow in its scope of storytelling. Instead, Betancourt has crafted an awesomely outlandish premise that creatively adds a different kind of excitement to the story of a dark moment in history. Though inextricably linked to its time and place, The Blue Line goes beyond historical narrative to illustrate an individual experience beyond the pages of history books.

I didn't actually realize that Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club was nonfiction until I started reading it. Using a vintage photo as cover art falls in line with the branding of a certain style of women's fiction—à la Rebecca Wells, Lorna Landvik, Laurie Graham. So needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered this was in fact nonfiction about actual astronauts' wives during the the sixties.

Koppel has pulled together stories of the women who experienced the space race alongside their husbands in their journeys to the moon. It was a very much male-centric environment; the men were the heroes, risking their lives in a quest for glory, as their wives supported them at home. LIFE magazine was paying the families for exclusive photos and stories, chronicling the space race from the homefront, but the pressure to appear as your quintessential American family put more pressure on the women than the men. It was the 1960s after all, an era when women remained in the domestic background and outspoken feminism was frowned upon.

As a feminist women in 2016, it's quite infuriating to read about such a lifestyle and environment. Women in that era seem homogeneously lumped together as one, perpetuating this image of the perfect wife with little individuality allowed to shine through. Meanwhile, the husbands get the notoriety and recognition, not to mention the extramarital company of the "Cape Cookies" to quell their loneliness during the weeks spent at NASA's Florida base, away from their Houston homes and wives. It seems that every piece of pop culture that takes place during this era (ie: Mad Men) is filled with cheating, drinking men and submissive women, and, having not lived during the era myself, I'm beginning to believe more and more that theme is actually a realistic representation!

While Koppel tries to tell the story that existed behind the photoshoots staged for the American public, I thought that, ultimately, the story didn't delve deep enough. I don't feel as though I learned much about the women as actual people with thoughts and feelings, which should've been the purpose of this book. They still sort of seem like that homogeneous group, and whether it's because it's hard to shake the image or they actually were the subservient, voiceless wives of the era, I didn't gain any newfound respect for them.