Little Brother


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 8:45 PM

Rating: 4/5 stars

Marcus Yallow, aka w1n5t0n, lives in a world basically like ours. He goes to high school in San Fransisco's Mission district, at an institution with a broken PA system, a petty dictator of a vice-president...and gait-monitor cameras in the hallways, tracking each student as they walk to and from class. Everyone's got those free classroom laptops -- that are all equipped with spyware, automatically logging each keystroke and reporting it to the school administration. Marcus Yallow does not live in a trusting world. But it's an eerily familiar one, otherwise.

Despite the ubiquitous surveillance, Marcus has a pretty good life -- he's figured out how to circumvent the system and enjoys tweaking Big Brother's nose every once in a while. He skips class pretty regularly, too, in order to join his teammates on Harajuku Fun Madness missions. Harajuku Fun Madness is an ARG, or alternate reality game, where players run around in the real world following clues that can be anything from GPS coordinates to a picture of a popular anime character. The game is fun in itself, but of course Marcus wants to win. Which is why he and his friends cut class to track down the next clue, and are out on the streets when the terrorists attack. And suddenly, the Department of Homeland Security seems to think that Marcus is one of the bad guys...

A smart teen techno-thriller that is accessible to non-geeks, Little Brother creates a world that looks a lot like ours, and asks uncomfortable questions about privacy and freedom that are deeply relevant today. Marcus is a sympathetic protagonist, and while his ideas about government and human rights remain firmly in the black-and-white, he is confronted with some interesting shades of gray as he becomes a fugitive in his own country. A good book for provoking discussion about pretty heavy political issues; even if the villains are Evil Freedom-Hating Government Agents and Narrow-Minded School Administrators, there are some 'good' characters who are convincingly on the fence, as everyday citizens torn between a need for security and nagging doubts about where the lines of government control should end. Where they actually do end is another question, since this book also offers disturbing insights on just how much we're being monitored, studied, and managed as a population (for our own safety, of course). It focuses on the darker side of 'conveniently' automated transactions, since that nifty travelpass swipe card can easily be used to track your daily commute -- and send up a flag when your travel behavior deviates from the norm.

Satisfyingly fast-paced, this is not a good book for the paranoid, but an excellent one for a current-day adventure, with a little techno-whiz education mixed in.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:33 AM

Rating: 4/5 stars

Tiffany isn't sure that she has the proper name for a witch, but there's no helping it -- she is determined to be one, despite all those stupid fairy tales with the old crone who gets shoved into ovens or tossed into lakes or set on fire (and no one really thinks about whether this actually helps matters). It probably has something to do with her grandmother, or the way the Achings have always been linked to the Chalklands, but when monstrous things start showing up on the wold, Tiffany knows she has to put a stop to it.

The only problem is, no one's actually taught her how to be a real witch. So Tiffany has to improvise with frying pans and bits of string instead of the traditional kit of cauldron, broomstick, and pointy hat. And she has to be creative in other ways, too -- after all, using one's little brother as monster-bait may not be strictly on the level in a moral sense, but if it gets the job done...

Then Tiffany discovers that help is available, only not in the form she expects. She meets the Nac Mac Feegle, a fierce tribe of blue-tattooed, red-haired warriors, who also happen to be about six inches high. And tend to be compulsive thieves. Which at least explains about the missing eggs and the disappearing sheep.

The Nac Mac Feegles seem to know what's going on, and if Tiffany could get them to stop drinking and fighting long enough to explain, she might be able to sort it all out -- except then some sort of evil Queen kidnaps her little brother, and she is suddenly very short on time...

I adore Terry Pratchett. I love his wry sense of humor and his sly little jokes, and the way he takes the expected and twists it into something fresh -- and especially the obvious joy that he takes in words themselves, their flavors and possibilities. Tiffany is a practical, stubborn nine-year-old girl whose initial self-assurance is really just a bit of common sense with a hefty dollop of pigheadedness and a dash of selfishness - the perfect traits for a witch, who needs to know far more about thinking and watching and understanding how people work than flashy incantations or curses.

This book is geared towards a younger audience, but it doesn't get overly cutesy or simplistic, and the characters are definitely complex enough to care about. The pacing is lively and the plot flows well, and things are wrapped up in a satisfying fashion that leaves plenty of room for more adventures. Maybe not as beloved as the Night Watch exploits, but Tiffany Aching's Chalklands are well worth revisiting.

If I Stay


Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:38 AM

Rating: 4/5 stars

It was probably because of the snow.

If it weren't for the light dusting of snowfall in Oregon, school wouldn't have been closed, and Mia's parents wouldn't have taken the day off for a family outing. They wouldn't have all piled into the minivan together, little Teddy clamoring for control of the radio, everyone looking forward to a relaxing break and maybe dinner at the grandparent's house later. And if they hadn't been on that road, going around that corner at the same time as the truck --

They would all still be alive.

Instead, Mia is left standing over her mangled body, watching the paramedics re-inflate her lungs and hustle her into a helicopter. Gradually realizing that her parents are both dead. That Teddy is hurt, off in another hospital. That she herself is only clinging to life. And she has to decide: should she let go and cross over to whatever comes next? Or should she stay?

Beautifully and quietly presented, this book brings up the problems of love and choice in graceful ways; Mia will suffer loss no matter what she decides, and maybe there is no right answer or even one that will cause less pain. She faces her dilemma in a believable way, not immune to panic or helplessness at her situation, overwhelmed by the utter isolation during the most important decision of her life.

Somehow, this novel avoids schmaltz territory, and it gracefully weaves between Mia watching the unfolding drama in the hospital and remembering her life up until this point. It's been a good life, and since this isn't a Scrooge story, Mia knows it -- but she also understands that everything has shattered with the accident. If she stays, would it be worth it to try to pick up the pieces? If she goes, what -- and who -- will she be leaving behind?

A quiet novel with unexpected strength and moments of poetic beauty, particularly in the descriptions of music, this is an affirming story of human will, love, and the burdens of choices that we feel unprepared to make. Vibrant and human and refreshingly schmaltz-free.
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