Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Excuse me reader, but can I be of assistance?  I can't help but notice that you have arrived at my blog once again.  Perhaps you are in the mood for another book review?  Ah, yes, then that it what we shall do.  Oh, you are curious as to what we will be discussing?  Today we will be reviewing The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

It follows a young man named Changez who lives in the city of Lahore, Pakistan.  He recounts his story of going to America to go to college and seek employment.  He falls in love with a beautiful woman named Erica and he lands a great job as an analyst at a major counseling firm.  All goes well, but then 9/11 happens.  From then on Changez constantly reexamines America, it's interactions with the world and even himself. 

You are concerned that this might not sound that interesting?  Forgive me, its one of those books that is tricky to summarize, but I can assure you that it is an excellent book.  Why am I writing the review as I am?  You see, the book is told as a conversation that Changez has with a nervous American in Lahore.  I quite liked this twist on the style of first person narration, and it really does show Mohsin Hamid's command of the English Language.  

I really enjoyed gaining a greater understanding of the peoples and culture of Pakistan, especially that of the city of Lahore.  It was also quite good to find out more about the 2001 standoff between Pakistan and India.  Oh, you have not heard of it?  I would not think so, it is not that well known here in the West.  This is certainly a book of literary fiction, but it does have a few dashes of nerd and geek culture that should help sustain those not normally into literary fiction.  For example, one of Changez's first assignments is to evaluate a fictional company that has created a teleportation device, and his girlfriend Erica is very into European comics.  

A bit of advice, you might not want to read/listen to this book if you're feeling hungry.  Changez and his American guest have quite the meal that is described with many caring details.  This goes especially if you enjoy Indian food, as Pakistan was once part of India.  It was also interesting how this novel depicted 9/11 from an non-American and non-Western perspective.  You are concerned that this novel will make you sympathize with terrorists?  Fear not, Changez is not that sort of man.  That being said, fundamentalism comes in more forms than just religious.  For example, Changez notes that he and his boss are very much economic fundamentalists, and he notes that, following 9/11, America takes on a very fundamentalist tone to its nationalism.

As he says, before 9/11 being in New York was like, well, being in New York; a big cosmopolitan city with many different cultures and people's living side-by-side.  After 9/11, however, living in New York was like living in America, and all that that entails.  Also, for those wondering, the name Changez is a variant on the name Genghis.  It's very much a book about what the immigrant dream means in our modern world, as well as the intersection between American and other nations.    

You are wonder if there is an audiobook version?  Why reader, I thought you'd never ask.  The answer is yes, it is narrated by Satya Bhabha, and it is quite excellent.  Satya really nails it with his performance of Changez's lemony narration style.  There was also a movie adaptation that premiered at the 2012 Vince Film Festival.  I have not seen it, and so I cannot speak of its quality.  The book was a finalist for the 2007 Booker Award, and it won the Anisfield-Wolf Award.  Quite a few universities have begun teaching this book in their courses.  All of this recognition and praise is more than deserved on Mohsin Hamid's part.  

And so we have reached the end of our review.  As you can see I enjoyed this book very much.  Ah, I see you are reaching into your pocket, which I assume is for your wallet so that you can buy a copy of this book?  

Interview: Matt Mitrovich

Today we've got another interview coming your way on Knowledge, Adventure and Wonder. He's the creator of The Alternate History Weekly Update, an alternate history aficionado and a good friend of mine. He's Matt Mitrovich and he is our guest for the day. So without further ado, let's get on with the interview.

1)  In your own words, who is Matt Mitrovich?

What a surprisingly difficult question. There are a lot of words that can be used to describe me: blogger, author, attorney, alternate historian, husband, son, brother, American, etc. I think a simple explanation is that I am just nerd who really enjoys alternate history.

2)  When did you first discover alternate history?

It had to happen early in my high school career. I remember going to the local book store and stumbling upon a paperback copy of Worldwar: In the Balance by Harry Turtledove where Hitler and Churchill are standing next to each other on the cover. Knowing a thing or two about World War II already, such a pairing was definitely a head turner. I bought the book and the rest, as they say, is history.

3)  What inspired you to start The Alternate History Weekly Update?

It's complicated. I started blogging during a time in my life when I was at my lowest. I felt my career was going nowhere and despite the number of times I told people I wanted to be a writer, I never actually wrote anything. Blogging was a way of letting off some steam from work and proving to myself I could write on a regular basis. Choosing what to write was difficult at first. I wanted to write about alternate history, but I needed a certain angle. Anyone could write their own alternate history timelines or scenarios and post them on the web, but I wanted to do something unique.

That is when I realized that most alternate historians don’t know a damn thing about the genre. Most knew the major authors and a few of the major sites, but topics like the Sidewise Awards or more obscure creators were mysteries to the fans. I decided then that I would write about the genre itself. I would cover the news and educate people about the history and people behind alternate history.

With Alternate History Weekly Update’s five year anniversary coming up next June, I think I made the right decision.

4)  I've heard that you've published a bit of fiction yourself in the past.  Can you tell us a little about that?

As mentioned above, part of the reason why I started The Update was to practice my writing. Once I became more comfortable with blogging, I decided to take a crack at writing fiction. I chose to write a short story first because I wanted to be pragmatic and didn’t think I could produce a novel just yet. My first short story I ever finished, “Collapse Theory”, has yet to be published. Although I was pretty proud of it, most publishers I submitted it to passed on it. Eventually I became frustrated with it and moved on to something else.

My first short story to be accepted by a publisher was “The Enchanted Bean”, which was a steampunk retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale. You can find a copy of it in Once Upon a Clockwork Tale. I published several other shorts after that: “Road Trip” (Forbidden Future), “A Perfect Hell on Earth” (Jake’s Monthly: Recollection) and “Revenants of Warfare” (The Were-Traveler).

To be honest I haven’t written much fiction since. When I was able to officially say that I was a published author, I lost interest in writing anything else. I really enjoyed blogging so I focused on that instead. Recently I have been feeling the urge to write fiction again and might even try for a novel, but we will see what the future brings.

5)  Now, I'm not personally a fan of the favorites game, but do you have a favorite work of alternate history?

I really have a soft spot in my heart for Worldwar: In the Balance, because it was the first alternate history book I read, but even I think “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” (the short story, not the novel) is my favorite Turtledove work. I enjoy the works of SM Stirling as well. He is probably one of the best world builders in the genre and knows how to write a series. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula books are great as well if you like dark humor and pop culture references. Even though his writing is a little old fashioned, I always enjoy reading anything by Harry Harrison. Newer authors I have enjoyed include Michael J. Martinez and Tony Schumacher. Stephen Baxter isn’t a new author per se, but I only started diving into his bibliography recently and I am happy to report I have enjoyed every minute of it. So to answer your question: no, I don’t have just one favorite work of alternate history

6)  You used to be an admin for the AltHistory Wikia, before it went down hill, what was that like?

It was fun while it lasted. I got the job because I’m pretty sure I annoyed the other admins with my constant reports of vandals and spammers. They will deny it, but I am pretty sure they made me an admin just so I would take care of those issues myself and not annoy them anymore. To their eternal horror (I’m guessing) I was a very active admin and pushed for reforms and created written guidelines for what were previously unspoken rules. I made a lot of good friends and I think even gained a level of respect.

Then things started to go down hill. People I knew left and a new group of editors joined. Many were good, but a lot had more snark than skill. I soon just became exhausted with the constant arguments and challenges. I also realized I spent more time policing the wiki then actually writing anything. This was around the same time I started The Update, so I “retired” as an admin and threw myself into blogging.

Although I did eventually return to the AltHistory wiki in a limited capacity, I was soon put off by the current user base. Again, there are still a lot of good editors working there, but they are being overshadowed by the people who are dragging the wiki down. I hope one day the AltHistory wiki can improve, but until then I will remain a lurker.

7)  So you're serving as a judge for the Sidewise Awards.  Can you tell us a how you were selected, and for readers who may not have heard of them, tell us a bit about the awards themselves.

The Sidewise Awards for Alternate History is an annual award given out at Worldcon for the best alternate history novel and short story. It was founded in 1995 by Steven H Silver, Robert Schmunk and Evelyn Leeper. Since then many judges have come and gone. Steven is currently the only original judge still serving (although Evelyn helps out behind the scenes and Robert still hosts the awards’ page on his website, Uchronia).

There really isn’t much of a story to how I was selected. Steven emailed me asking if I would serve a judge. After I finished squealing with geeky glee, I emailed him back saying I would. The next awards are going to be presented in 2016 at MidAmeriCon II and I hope to be in attendance. If anyone else is going, let me know and maybe we can meet up to talk alternate history.

8)  You recently started your own YouTube channel.  What inspired you to do so, especially at a time when many users feel that YouTube has thrown them under the bus.

I enjoy experimenting with new mediums and YouTube was something I felt was deficient when it came to alternate history. Don’t get me wrong, Cody Franklin’s Alternate History Hub is something even people who are not fans of the genre should check out, but besides him, there really aren’t any other channels I can recommend.

Creating my own channel is my own effort to rectify that situation. I am still set in “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” mode, so I can’t really talk too much about what I am doing. I can say I am approaching alternate history on my channel, The Alternate Historian, the same way I did it for The Update.

9)  Are there any non-alternate history books that you happen to be a big fan of?

1984, Fitzpatrick’s War, The Lost Fleet series, World War Z, Theodore Rex, Vortex, The Dark Tower series, The Zombie Survival Guide, Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Starship Troopers, Mythology, “The Good War”, Lies My Teacher Told Me, Starfighters of Adumar, The Jungle, Revelation Space, Marvel Zombies, The Kingkiller Chronicles...the list goes on.

10)  Besides your own blog you're a frequent contributor at Amazing Stories.  How'd you get started with that, and what's that like?

Again, not a very exciting story. Before Steve Davidson, the editor of Amazing Stories, relaunched the magazine, he was looking for contributors. I filled out his form and he contacted me back and offered me a place on the staff. I tried various different ways to write for the magazine and eventually just said “screw it” and wrote about alternate history.

Steve has been one of the best editors I ever had and he has been very supportive, especially when I asked to go from a weekly to a bi-monthly schedule. He is passionate about Amazing Stories and I look forward to seeing all of his hard work pay off.

11)  What does the future hold for Matt Mitrovich?

Well I want to write more fiction and produce better quality videos for my channel. I also want to encourage more guest posts to The Update to give me time to do both of those. We shall see though. I try not to plan too far in advance.

In truth, 2016 will be the year where my wife and I focus on bringing home Baby Mitro. We are planning to adopt and if you would like to learn more, check out our blog or are GoFundMe page.

12)  Any advice for aspiring bloggers and alternate historians?

For bloggers (and writers in general) my advice is to start writing. There is a 99% chance that you are not a genius, so don’t worry about whether your content is “good”. Just write on a regular basis about something and share it with others. You will get better as time goes on and hearing criticism, even if it is not constructive, will help you improve.

As for alternate historians, always always always do your research. If I ever have to read about another British North America (in a world where the Americans lost the Revolutionary War) having to buy Florida from Spain, I will teleport to where you live and beat you with one of your Turtledove books (don’t lie, we all have at least one).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book Review: Looking For Alaska by John Green

Well I'm back again for another book review.  This time we're going to step away from the speculative and the fantastic and focus more on slice of life.  Specifically, we're going to be reviewing Looking for Alaska by John Green.  The book follows Miles Halter, an awkward sixteen from Orlando, Florida about to set out for his first year of boarding schooling in Birmingham, Alabama.  Miles likes to collect the last words of famous people, and he goes to seek the great perhaps.  Along the way he is befriended by a quirky group of nerds, and he soon finds himself infatuated by the lovely Alaska, and yes, that is seriously her name.  Alaska lights up his word (she lights up a couple of his other things too) and soon Miles and the gang are in for an adventure full of drinking, smoking, sex and much more.  Oh, but all is not well, as you may notice by the count down at the start of each chapter.  

At the present moment speculative fiction dominates the YA market, especially dystopia and supernatural romance.  What makes John Green so unique is that he writes very down-to-earth slice of life books, and he is one of the most successful and beloved modern YA authors.  I didn't listen to this book until my freshman year of college, and I think that was to this book's benefit.  Boarding school is some much like college that, having lived the college life, I was able to relate to it pretty well.  Not only that, but Miles' group of friends had striking parallels to the friends that I made during my freshman year of college, though maybe that's because we have similar personalities and thus attract the same sorts of people.  

I loved the descriptions throughout this book, whether it be of the gang's wacky hijinks or just them sitting around, eating fried burritos and discussing philosophy.  If you're looking to get into John Green's books I'd recommend this as a pretty good starting point.  Besides Miles and Alaska I'd have to say that my favorite character would be The Colonel, whose real name is Chip, but he doesn't like to be called that.  He's their short and stocky friend who always comes up with the plans for their adventures, and he's obsessed with geography, you gotta love that.  Then again, I won first place in regional and state Literary Rally in geography, so maybe I'm biased.  The way the narration and dialogue are written are also quite excellent.  

Speaking of narration, the audiobook version, narrated by Jeff Woodman, is perfectly narrated.  There's a bit of guitar music during the beginning and end of the audiobook.  It was really nice and it fit the book quite well.  On a slightly less realities note, I know I mentioned sex and drinking and all that, but this book isn't too explicit with that stuff, all things considered.  

Having said all of these nice things, there were still a few issues, but this was John Green's first book after all.  John has stated that he intended this book to be a deconstruction of the Manic Pinkie Dream Girl trope, but it come across more as a novel about dealing with the death of a friend and loved one.  Okay, little spoilery, but at least I never told you who dies.  Anyway, to his credit John has acknowledged this and that was part of the reason he went on to write Paper Towns.  The other issues is that by the end Miles is practically screaming the book's message at the top of his lungs to the reader; with all the subtly of an eighteen wheeler at top speed.  Imagine if The Stage Manager from Our Town were shouting his final monologue into a megaphone at the top of his voice, and it's kind of like this.  Again, this was John's first book and he got better at subtly delivering his books' morals and messages as time went on.  

Despite a few rough patches towards the end this is still a great book, and one that I happily recommend.  If you're looking to see what all the buzz about John Green is about this is a great starting point.  Now that I've reviewed his first book, I think I might review the other John Green books as well.  I'll probably do that in the order I read them, so Will Grayson, Will Grayson is up next.  

In that case, I will see all of you next time.   

Friday, December 11, 2015

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

It's been a while since I reviewed a book on this blog, so we're going to do something about that.  Today we'll be reviewing The Martian by Andy Weir.  By now you probably know the plot, especially thanks to the recent movie adaptation, but let's recap it anyway.  In the not too distant future the Ares III mission to Mars has had to return Earth prematurely due to surprise dust storm.  Unfortunately, Mark Watney has been left behind because everyone assumed that he died during the storm.  Now it's going to take everything Mark's got and then some to stay alive, reestablish contact with mission control and get back to Earth.

This was one of those books that I heard about it so much that I decided give it a listen to see what all the buzz was about.  I can safely say that the buzz wasn't without a very good reason.  I enjoyed this book very much.  I enjoyed Mark's snarky and sarcastic internal commentary.  It made even the grimmest and most serious of situations feel lighthearted and not quite as serious.  Of course, as Mark himself says, for NASA equipment failure is a serious issue, but for him it was a pretty normal Tuesday.  Mark's dialogue reminded me of what I always imagined would happen if Percy Jackson were to get stranded on Mars.  This book did a really good job of capturing just how risky and potentially dangerous space travel and exploration can be.

I also liked how the narration shifted between Mark, Mission Control and the crew of Ares III.  It was nice to get the perspective of the other characters as they struggle to get Mark home alive.   Venkat Kapoor was probably my favorite among the Mission Control gang.  In many ways this novel can be described as Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  It was fun seeing how Mark would solve the latest puzzle that was thrown at him.  I also liked how the Hermes orbiter was a reusable spacecraft that parks in Earth orbit when not being used for a mission; really felt like something that might, hopefully, happen one day.

The science in this book is extremely solid.  In fact, this is one of the hardest of the hard science fiction books that you're bound to find.  Having said that, there are a few notable exceptions.  The most glaring begin the very thing that sets the plot in motion: the dust storm.  Due to Mars' low atmospheric pressure, even the most raging dust storm or tornado would only be about as powerful as a gentle summer breeze.  To his credit, Andy Weir has stated that he regrets making this and wishes that he could go back and create a more realistic reason for Ares III to abort their mission.  Also, no matter what Mark may tell you, disco does not suck!  To be fair, thought, if I only had it to listen to for several months I'd probably be sick of it too.

For those of you who enjoy audiobooks there is an excellent audiobook version that is narrated by R.C. Bray.  I'm sure you're also more than aware of movie adaptation directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.  As of this post I have not seen the movie, but I have heard very good things about it, and I plan to see it at some point or another.  This book has proven to be quite popular not only with everyone at NASA, but also with Neil DeGrasse Tyson himself, which is no small feat of achievement.  

All in all it is an excellent and believable novel.  The hype has been happening for a very well deserved reason.  Do yourself a favor and pick up this book, in physical form or in audio, you'll be glad that you did.