Redshirts by John Scalzi

redshirts I don’t even know where to start with this one.  I loved it so much it hurts. As John Scalzi says about Wil Wheaton in his dedication, I so feel about John Scalzi. “To Wil Wheaton, whom I heart with all the hearty heartness a heart can heart.”  It doesn’t hurt to add at this point that I feel pretty much the same about Wil Wheaton as well.  (For those who share my love, it’s good to note that Wil does the narration of this audiobook.)

Ok enough of the fangirl ramblings…for now. 

Redshirts starts with Ensign Andrew Dahl, a newly assigned officer to the Universal Union flagship, Intrepid.  As he begins his work in the xenobiology lab, he notices that the crew seems annoyingly preoccupied with Away Missions, but no one will explain why.  He receives seemingly random instructions about how to work and act on the ship, including the use of a Magic Box that spits out remarkable answers to impossible problems in just a few minutes. 

After participating in his first Away Mission, Dahl is positive that something strange is going on, and learns that on all such missions, a low-ranking officer (such as himself) is inevitably killed while the five senior officers always make miraculous escapes and recoveries. 

It would be such a shame to say any more about the plot, so let’s move on.  Redshirts works on so many levels.  If you know and love Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), this book is for you.  If you want a fun, light, science-fiction read, this book is for you.  The inclusion of the Trek Universe is done in such a clever way that if you get the jokes and spot all the easter eggs, it’s definitely more fun, but the entire book is readable and enjoyable even if you haven’t.

But back to the people who love Star Trek.  The entire book reads like a single TOS episode.  Fun and merriment at the beginning, the introduction of a problem, danger interspersed with learning more about the problem, a daring plan to solve the problem, a harrowing journey/conflict/negotiation, and a happy-go-lucky moment at the end where everyone chuckles at someone’s expense.  A happy addition to this plot line is the no-apologies digs at Star Trek and the many unbreakable characters, impossible solutions, blatant disregard for the rules, and the surprising lack of logic in many of the episodes. Scalzi’s brilliance here is to bring all of these elements together.  The story is familiar, yet different.  He makes fun of Trek while dedicating an entire novel to it.  He uses the same shoddy story-telling devices in a few places that Trek relied on.  And it all adds up to be a multi-layered story that won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

One more note. Don’t skip the three Codas at the end of the book.  I was a little bit put off by the extras at the end, especially because the main narrative ended so hilariously.  So I took a couple days break, and went back just for the Codas and they are definitely worth it.  They are a little bit like those bits of text you get at the end of a movie that explain what happened after the events you just saw, and I always really like reading those.

One more fangirl “SQUEE!! I loved this book!” and I’ll let it go at that.  Now go read it.

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Princess Elizabeth’s Spy (Maggie Hope Mystery Book 2) by Susan Elia MacNeal

13330549I reviewed Mr. Churchill’s Secretary sometime last year and noted that while I really enjoyed the story, I felt as though Maggie’s character lacked a little something that I hoped would be fleshed out in later books.  I finally got around to the second book in this series and was really pleased that I stuck with it!

Maggie Hope is back in action as the Second World War rages on.  Bracing herself for life as a spy with MI-5, Maggie soon faces the fact that she might not have the chops to make it.  Her intelligence remains unparalled, but the physical strains prove too much.  Dejected, Maggie fears that her career in espionage may be over until she receives a new assignment.  The Royal Family is under threat and a young Princess Elizabeth is in need of a math tutor.  Maggie moves in to Windsor Castle and begins her career as both a governess, and an undercover agent.  With so many people bustling about to attend to the Royals, there is plenty of suspicion and potential for treachery for Maggie to investigate.

Overall, I found the plot of this novel to be much more satisfying than Book 1.  We are deep into the war, and everyone has realized that no one will win easily, and so more inventive methods are used to try to gain an upper hand.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s always great to read about the monarchy, albeit from a little bit of a distance.  This book forced me to get up close and personal with the future Queen as she quickly becomes a central element in the story.  Elizabeth is portrayed as a young, intelligent, gracious future monarch, and acted much as I would hope or expect her to in the circumstances.  I’m always wary of writer’s putting words in the mouth of historical figures, but this wasn’t so bad.  On a sidenote, I always wonder what these people would think about the fictional accounts of their lives and how accurate the character sketch really is. There is inevitably a point where historical accuracy goes out the window in favour of a thrilling plot, but I’ll let that slide…

There were a few minor elements of the plot that felt predictable, but they didn’t take away from the overall strength of the story.  On the flip side, there were also surprises and fresh elements along the way that kept me reading.  Without spoiling anything, there is also a great twist at the end of the book that sets up the sequel, His Majesty’s Hope, that makes my mouth water. 

(You may also be interested to know that MacNeal has signed a deal with her publisher for Books 4, 5, and 6.)

Fever by Lauren DeStefano (The Chemical Garden Trilogy Book 2)

FeverI never did review Book 1 of the Chemical Garden Trilogy, Wither, because I didn’t have a whole lot to say about it.  I’m finding the same is true of Book 2, Fever. I finished it last night, and while I already have the concluding volume in my hands, I don’t feel passionately about the series one way or another. Minor spoilers to follow.

Fever follows Rhine’s journey after she flees the mansion and emotionally complex relationship with her husband.  As she tries to make her way back to Manhattan to reunite with her brother, she encounters all manner of morally defunct personalities.  The book seems to be one struggle after another for Rhine as she constantly battles people who want to own her and use her to turn a profit.  It certainly helps set the tone for the book, but I felt a little bit lost in the plot.  Everything was easy to understand, but I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly she was trying to accomplish. She leaves her luxurious prison to find her brother, but then what?  We know that there is obviously going to be more to the story than just “they live happily ever after until this bizarre virus kills them” so there was a lack of direction that plagued the entire book.

I also struggle to describe this story in the wider context of Young Adult fiction.  It was both exactly what I expected it to be, and completely original.  I liked that there were more adult elements to the story.  Often I find that skipping over sex is a cop-out to make the story suitable for YA publishing, but this included prostitution, rape, and real relationships with other characters.  Obviously I’m not arguing that these things have to be included for a story to be good, but we are supposed to believe that men die at 25 and women at 20, so to exclude sex when in all likelihood people would reach sexual maturity a lot earlier out of necessity, I’m glad DeStefano didn’t shy away from it.

I wouldn’t say anything in this series is ground-breaking, but I’m interested to see where the story goes next, and I’m hoping that the inevitable Book 2 slump is behind me and that Sever is a satisfying conclusion to Rhine’s journey.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

20140114-192858.jpgWhen I read Young Adult fiction, I’m expecting one of two things: A fun, flimsy, romantic story about a young woman being pursued by 2 equally dreamy young men while she struggles to understand her true place in the world.  Or a preachy narrative full of life-lessons, big impact moments, and tough decisions that end up being more literary, but let’s face it, more boring.

Now I know I’m being unfair to the genre.  But what I really came here to say was the Fangirl is an outstanding contribution to that genre.  It combines the big moments with the excitement of being pursued by dreamy men.  It has valuable insights into the emotions and mindset of teens and 20-something adults.  It’s the type of book that makes fans truly fanatical, but has enough substance and poignancy to keep it honest and real.  Obviously I’m a fan of Fangirl.

We follow the story of Cath, a young woman who is leaving home for her first year of college.  Raised by a struggling father, Cath and her twin Wren are consumed by the story of Simon Snow, a series of fictional novels that are an obvious reference to Harry Potter, including the international frenzy that those books inspired.

As truly devoted fans, Cath and Wren write fan-fiction and post their Simon stories online for the world to see.  They have thousands of followers, and for Cath, writing Simon Snow fan-fiction is a lifestyle she adores and won’t consider giving up. When they leave for college, Wren decides she wants to be more independent and finds a new roommate, leaving Cath struggling to find her way alone.

The incorporation of excerpts from both the “original” Simon Snow books and Cath’s fan-fiction was a spot-on choice for Rowell.  The world of fan-fiction can be overwhelming, and it’s the sort of online community that can be difficult to understand if you’re not in it.  She manages to include debates on the legality of fan-fiction, why people write it, and why some people just cannot let go of fictional worlds.

For anyone who has really loved a book, movie or television show, this level of devotion is easy to understand. I’ve never had the urge to write fan-fiction, but I am certainly a fanatic when it comes to some things. It’s a high compliment for an author/writer/director to have people who feel so passionately about their work that they never want to leave it.  But Rowell also deals with the real-world implications of immersing yourself so thoroughly in a world that isn’t our own.  Cath often retreats to the comfort of Simon Snow when the challenges of doing new things and meeting new people overwhelm her, and as her first year of college progresses, we get to see how this obsession affects her relationships with other people, often in a humorous, raw way.

Rainbow Rowell may just be my favourite YA author. Eleanor and Park was an outstanding read, but in a very different way than Fangirl, and I really appreciate an author who can continue to produce high-quality work without relying heavily on their previous accomplishments. She has a gift when it comes to writing about teens and young adults that many authors lack.  Her next book, Landline, is set for a 2014 publication, and I can’t wait!